Drinkhacker’s 2015 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

We at Drinkhacker have been busier than ever this year, and yet it seems impossible that it’s time for our eighth annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards.” As always, the list comprises some of the best-rated products we looked at over the last 12 months but is also focused on products that are 1) actually available, 2) worthwhile as gifts, and 3) not entirely out of the realm of affordability.

This year, by popular demand, we’re adding wine to the gift guide. It’s one of the busiest categories on the site, one of the most popular gift items on the market, and something we’ve overlooked for too many years.

As always, the offerings below are only a tiny selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, and we welcome both your suggestions for alternatives and questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting. Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Rhetoric 21-Year-Old_Hi-Res Bottle ShotBourbon – Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric 21 Years Old ($100) – So many amazing bourbons hit this year, and so many are already impossible to find. While Diageo took some early drubbing for its curious Orphan Barrel project, this year it really hit its stride. Rhetoric 21 is the best of the lot to date — and part of an ongoing project that will see older and older expressions of Rhetoric shipping every year. It’s still widely available at its original selling price, as is its near equal in the Orphan Barrel project, Forged Oak 15 Years Old ($75). I loved Col. E.H. Taylor Cured Oak ($75 on release), but you’ll be lucky to find it for $500 today. That makes the over-the-top (but delightful) Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century ($400/1 liter) seem like a downright bargain.

Scotch – The Exclusive Malts Ben Nevis 1996 17 Years Old ($140) – I’m not going to break the bank this year with my malt whisky pick and rather send you hunting for the 17 year old Ben Nevis from The Exclusive Malts, an indie bottler that has been absolutely on fire with a string of amazing releases. The exotic fruit, sweetness, and cereal notes combine in an inimitable and very compelling way. A big hand is due to Diageo again in this list for its 2014 limited editions (which hit the U.S.) in March this year. If you have the cash, check out Rosebank 21 Years Old ($500), Strathmill 25 Years Old ($475), or Brora 35 Years Old ($1,250), all three from that series. Finally, peat fanatics should head directly for whatever Laphroaig 15 Years Old ($70) they can still find.

journeyman ThreeOaks_750Other Whiskey – Journeyman Distillery Three Oaks Single Malt ($47) – Craft whiskey in the U.S. is finally, finally, arriving, and this year it’s landing a top spot on our best of the year list. Michigan-based Journeyman is showcasing how single malt should be made in America with this young but exuberant spirit that any whiskey fan owes it to himself to try. For another top craft pick, consider Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskey ($75), a young wheat whiskey that is the best of this series so far. The Irish Yellow Spot ($95) maintains a special place in my heart next to its Green sibling — and don’t forget that rye is making leaps and bounds. One of the best is Woodford Reserve Rye ($38) — where it is actually made instead of trucked in from another state.

Gin – Oppidan American Botanical Gin ($30) – Our top gin pick this year comes from a Chicago microdistillery where a bounty of botanicals is used to spice up a London Dry style gin, giving it a delicate, floral character that should not be missed. Other great options include Tanqueray Bloomsbury ($33), Anchor Distilling Old Tom ($30), and the exotic Painted Stave South River Red Gin ($22/375ml), which really is red.

Vodka  Square One Bergamot Vodka ($35) – If you must give vodka this year, try this unusual, citrus-flavored vodka from Square One. Other good (and unflavored) options include Vodka Mariette ($30) and Tigre Blanc Vodka ($90), proceeds of which go in part to support large cats in the wild.

DP30yrs_white_USAhighresRum – Don Pancho Origenes Rare Rum 30 Years Old ($425) – New rum brands don’t pop up every day, and when they do rarely do they have a legend in the business attached. Don Pancho (aka Francisco Fernandez) is putting his name on a finished product for the first time, and it’s a doozy not to be missed. For less ritzy outlays, consider the well-aged offerings in the form of Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 23 Years Old ($50) or Ron Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva ($40).

Brandy – Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne Tres Rare ($179) – A tough call from among these three stellar Cognacs, and really you can’t go wrong with any of them. My slight preference ultimately goes to Giraud and this well-priced rarity. Close runners-up: Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO ($110) and Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2005 Cognac ($100).

dulce vida extra anejoTequila – Dulce Vida Extra Anejo ($160) – Another solid year for tequila, this year with a flood of excellent extra anejos really showing their stuff. My favorite of the bunch is from Dulce Vida, aged 5 1/2 years in used wine barrels. Great tequila with a great story behind it, too. Also worthwhile are Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia 2015 Rolling Stones Tour Pick ($150, also available for less sans the Stones imagery), El Mayor Reposado ($30, amazing bargain!), and the luxe Patron Extra Anejo 7 Anos ($299).

Liqueur – Spirit Works Sloe Gin ($40) – It’s a light year for quality liqueurs, but I have to give the nod to my hometown heroes Spirit Works and their killer sloe gin. Other top picks include Maraska Maraschino ($27) and Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao ($31), both of which should be home bar staples.

Wine As promised, this year we’re adding a smattering of ideas for some of the best wines we’ve seen this year that would be appropriate for gift-giving. It’s hard to pick a single “winner” (and probably not fair because availability will vary widely) but here are my top seven wines of the year, in no particular order:

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: Arkansas Black Applejack 21 Years Old

arkansas black 21

Earlier this year we brought you coverage of Arkansas Black Applejack, an artisan apple brandy that happens to be made in my own adopted community in Marin County, California.

Now the husband and wife duo have put out a monster of an upgrade: Arkansas Black 21 Years Old. Now Arkansas Black is a youngish operation, so how is it making a 21 year old expression? Here’s the scoop from the company:

We sourced the product from a California brandy family who made a one-off batch of apple brandy in the early ’90s. They put the 100% California-grown apple distillate in seasoned french oak and let it ride, never bottling it or bringing it to market. Earlier this year they made the decision that they didn’t really have a plan for the stuff and made it available. We bought it, brought the proof to 92, and bottled it with no additional processing. There will be 600 cases bottled and that will be that.

This 21 year old applejack squarely lives somewhere between brandy and whiskey, with loads of vanilla and caramel on the nose, plus some barrel char, but balanced by gratings of cinnamon and — at last — a strong apple aroma that comes wafting to the fore. Unlike the NAS version, this expression keeps the apple in check, saving it to layer onto the palate as it evolves on the tongue. Notes of toasted meringue, coconut, and some sherry notes all make an appearance, with ample apple pie notes washing over everything. The finish is long, minimal in the boozy after-effect that’s so common with fruit brandies, and both inviting and enduring.

As apple-based spirits go, you’re looking at one of the best produced anywhere.

92 proof.

A / $125 / via facebook

Review: La Caravedo Pisco Puro Quebranta

La Caravedo btlLa Caravedo is a new pisco from Pisco Porton, a puro bottling made only from quebranta grapes.

The nose is classic pisco, offering a restrained take on the spirit that brings forth notes of quince, evergreen, and modest underpinnings of rubber and petrol (again, classic pisco stuff).

The palate offers a nice balance of flavors — strong floral notes (perhaps inspiring the graphic etched on the bottle), pear notes, more of that evergreen/pine character (later on in the experience), and a finish evoking lightly sweet butterscotch character — alongside an herbal, almost tar-like edge. There’s ample complexity here, but also a nice balance of flavors and aromas that come together to form a nicely realized package.

On the whole, it’s rather gentle as far as pisco goes, a spirit category that is rarely known for its restraint and nuance. I wouldn’t hesitate to try to work it into a pisco sour, a cuzco, or any other classic pisco cocktail.

80 proof.

B+ / $25 / via Facebook

Review: Paul Masson Grande Amber VS Brandy

Paul-Masson-VS-BrandyDon’t be fooled: The VS in Paul Masson’s Grande Amber VS doesn’t stand for very superior or very special, as it does in France. It stands for very smooth, as noted in tiny type underneath.

Yes, Paul Masson has come a long way since Orson Welles’ day, but it’s still an avowed budget brand. Brandy like this remains its most notable product (a VSOP is also sold), made from unknown grapes, aged three years in barrel, and likely colored within an inch of its life with caramel.

With all that said, for the price, this is not a bad product. I used this brandy to make a punch, but on its own it isn’t at all unpalatable. The nose has an alcoholic punch to it, but loads up caramel, vanilla, milk chocolate, and brown sugar notes, too. On the palate, the caramel-vanilla combo gives up a bit of time to notes of baked apples, raisin, and some cloves. The finish is a bit medicinal, though Paul Masson tries to cover that up with sugary fruit notes. It’s not entirely successful, but let’s give them points for trying…

80 proof.

B- / $10 / paulmassonbrandy.com

Review: Cognac Paul Giraud – VSOP, Napoleon, and Tres Rare

Cognac Paul Giraud

Paul Giraud is a small Cognac producer that has been harvesting its own vineyards to make brandy since the 17th century. While not commonly available in the U.S., you can find a bottle or two of the eight expressions the company makes if you look hard enough. Today we take a spin through three expressions, all of which are bottled at 80 proof.

Thoughts follow.

Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne VSOP – Bright gold in color. On the nose, fresh fruit — baked apples and a touch of golden raisins — and caramels. It’s fresh and sweet, but largely uncomplicated. On the body, things evolve with a considerable level of baking spices, which make for a natural and quite beautiful companion to the sweet and fruity notes on the nose. Some notes of incense and that classically, lightly bittersweet astringency on the finish give this a classic Cognac showing. Pretty, young, vibrant, and quite a nice start to this collection. A- / $40

Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne Napoleon – It’s one step up from the VSOP bottling, but this Napoleon bottling shows just a shade lighter than the VSOP. The nose is considerably different — almost leathery at times, the fruit elements veering more toward dried apples and brandied prunes rather than the fresher notes of the VSOP. The body heads more into sultry notes of cloves, freshly cut wood, and a finish that plays up the more bitter elements in the brandy — bordering on astringent at times. All told it’s a rather straightforward Cognac with its sweetness dialed back — which may be a more preferable experience to some drinkers who find some bottlings on the sugary side. Let your palate be the judge. (That said, I prefer the VSOP.) B+ / $50

Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne Tres Rare – How rare? Tres rare. Darker, richer, and clearly older, this is Cognac drinking at a solid degree of maturity. While it hasn’t developed quite into the stratosphere, Tres Rare is a showcase of Cognac as a study in contrasts — rich, vibrant, and almost jammy fruit (apple, plum, cherry, banana), melded with notes of exotic woods, almonds & marzipan, leather, and a dense layer of toasted spices. Complex and sometimes challenging, Tres Rare is firing on multiple levels that create a cohesive and intricate experience that is tough to find in mainstream brandies. Taken all together it shows why premium Cognac commands the prices it does — while this bottling still keeps things relatively affordable. Well done. A / $179


Review: Flaviar “Eau de Vie! Oui!” Cognac Sampler & the Flaviar App

flaviar packs

We’ve been friends with Flaviar for quite a while, and we’re going to start looking more deeply into their sampler packs. These are available on a one-off basis or as a monthly subscription, featuring rum, whiskey, brandy, or just about anything else.

Today we’re looking at Flaviar’s Cognac sampler, a set of spirits packaged under the label of “Eau de Vie! Oui!” If you’re expecting a bunch of Remy Martin and Courvoisier, think again. With the exception of Hennessy and Martell, none of these are major-name Cogancs, and even the Hennessy is a Europe-only bottling. In other words, you’re getting stuff here you won’t likely find at your local watering hole.

Let’s take a look at the five Cognacs — each in 50ml quantities — in this pack.

Hennessy Fine de Cognac – Positioned between a VS and VSOP, not available in the U.S. (originally made for King George IV before he was crowned). It’s a junior Cognac, a little weedy and short, with some rough, wood-driven notes, but not without some charms. B-

Martell VSOP – Pretty nose, but a bit thin on the body. Solid caramel, vanilla, raisin, and baking spice notes. Well-integrated but not overwhelmingly complicated. An easy “house brandy” selection. A-

Baron Otard VSOP – Very mild nose, evoking cinnamon buns. Quite sweet on the tongue, more than the previous brandies, which really pushes the (raisin-studded) cinnamon roll character. Gentle, brown sugar finish… a well-made, mid-level brandy. B+

Dobbe Cognac XO – Lovely to see this XO taking on some rancio notes — fortified wine, coffee, dark chocolate. Lots of coffee on the nose, and a little tobacco and roasted nuts. A dense, almost pruny Cognac, but I liked its intensity quite a bit. Brooding and contemplative. A-

Gautier XO Gold & Blue – Nice, old Cognac here — well-developed golden raisins, baking spice, and lots of vanilla. While it doesn’t stray far from the path, it’s firing on all cylinders and drinking beautifully. A

Get a Flaviar Welcome Pack (including this one)

Flaviar’s also got a new app for iOS and Android, which lets you purchase bottles and tasting packs and see a “flavour spiral” for everything you’ve sampled. Kind of a neat spin on the flavor wheel, and fun to check out while you’re sampling spirits. Check it out on your relevant app store.

Review: Copper & Kings Immature Brandy and Craft Distilled Brandy

copper and kings immature brandy

Yes Virginia, they make stuff other than bourbon in Louisville, Kentucky. Copper & Kings, which only opened last year, is a craft distiller of brandy (and a bunch of absinthes, which we’re reviewing soon), which are copper pot-distilled “just twice for character and taste.” Made from Muscat (or French Colombard, depending on what you read), two varieties are currently available. Thoughts follow.

Copper & Kings Immature Brandy – That’s an interesting, on-the-nose name for an unaged brandy. Astringent and alcoholic — it’s also perfumed and exotic, with notes of lychee, elderflower, and marzipan all on the nose. Intensely floral and perfume-focused on the palate, the earthier tones seep in without overwhelming things. The finish takes things to an alpine level, and almost reminds me of an Andes mint. Consider using in lieu of gin. 90 proof. B- / $x

Copper & Kings Craft Distilled Brandy – Take the above and age it in a combination of new white oak and used bourbon barrels for about two years — and blend it with some older, sourced pot-distilled brandy — and you have this spirit. Lots of vanilla-focused bourbon notes on the nose, some lumber. On the palate, lots of sweetness, with those marzipan notes from the Immature showing up right from the start. With prominent notes of brown sugar, some cinnamon, more almond extract, and a bit of stone fruit, you could be forgiving for thinking this was some kind of craft whiskey (perhaps even an Irish), particularly with its chewy burnt-marshmallow finish. 90 proof. B+ / $x


Review: Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2005 Cognac

Domaines HINE Bonneuil 2005 pack shot

Here’s a new, limited-edition Cognac from Hine (it rhymes with “wine,” by the way). I’ll allow Hine to explain how it came to be:

Bonneuil 2005 will be the first expression in a new collection of single grand cru, single harvest cognacs, originating exclusively from Hine’s own 297 acre estate, Domaines Hine.  Only 18 casks (8,100 bottles) of Bonneuil 2005 were selected for bottling. Hine is one of the few houses in the Cognac region to have its own vineyard and each year, if the quality is up to Hine’s standards, a careful selection will be made to create a new addition to the collection.

This brandy is surprisingly light in color, particularly for a Cognac with such depth of flavor. The nose is heavily perfumed with florals, oranges, strong raisin notes, and some cedar box. It’s a little hot on the nose, but still manageable. The body doesn’t offer much of a digression from the above. Again, intense, almost jammy raisin notes pervade, with sweet, incense-dusted overtones. After that, notes of graham cracker, dark chocolate, and a bit of prune emerge. The finish is warming but quite soothing, fading out with some citrus notes and another hint of floral-focused incense. Quite lovely on the whole.

86 proof.

A / $140 / hinecognac.com

Review: Arkansas Black Applejack

arkansas HI-RES

As far as local spirits go, for me, there’s nothing more local than Arkansas Black Applejack. It’s made by a husband and wife that live right around the corner from me, from Arkansas Black apples (hence the name) plus some Golden Delicious. The applejack is actually produced in Oregon at Clear Creek, after which it is aged in a mix of French Cognac and American Bourbon barrels.

Each bottle is a limited-cask bottling; the sample I tried came from a 2014 batch of just 2 barrels. (In 2015, 10 barrels are on tap for bottling.)

This is about as pure an expression of applejack as you’re likely to find in America today. The nose if immediately filled with baked apples — and a little bit of the funkiness you expect to see in a craft apple brandy. Bittersweet but authentic, the body is powerful with chewy apple notes, vanilla caramels, and baking spices. Initially quite sweet, almost like a grape brandy, it edges toward bitter as the palate takes hold, with the wood influence becoming more expressive. The finish balances these elements, offering a sugary zing tempered by notes of apple cider, root beer, licorice, and some savory herbs.

98 proof. Reviewed: Batch A, barrel TL-1, bottle #273.

A- / $50 / via facebook

Tasting with Branded Spirts: Hana Gin, Motu Rum, HM Blended Scotch, and Majeste Cognac

Majeste_XO_White Background

Treasure Island, California-based Branded Spirits recently sent us its Arctic Fox Vodka for review… then they stopped by with more — everything the company is currently producing, in fact. Originally a major exporter to China — where it once held the license to sell Heineken beer — it’s now making a bigger, broader push for the U.S. as well.

We tasted through four additional products from Branded, including a gin, rum, Scotch, and Cognac. The company promises more goodies to come, including a single malt and some vintage Cognacs, to boot.

All spirits are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Hana Gin – Triple distilled (presumably from corn, like Arctic Fox Vodka), this gin is infused with just four botanicals: Albanian juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, and lavender. The lavender note is quite fragrant up front, leading to a floral-driven nose. Juniper is big on the finish, but modest medicinal notes creep in as the finish fades. B / $20

Motu Rum – Distilled from Polynesian molasses, then rested in used French oak barrels for two months. A hint of hogo up front, with some agricole character at first. The rum sweetens out as the body builds, offering tropical and coconut notes. Quite chewy, with a lasting, slightly fruity finish. Quite unique and sophisticated for this price level. Some proceeds go to support Tongan conservation charities. A- / $20

HM The King Blended Scotch Whisky – A Highland style blend which includes some peated malt along with other Highland malts mingled with Lowland grain whisky. Leather saddle notes start off what develops into a rustic nose, with a slight smokiness and plenty of earth. The body offers honey and toffee, plus some floral elements, making for a spirit with two faces — brooding and leathery on the nose, but sweeter and gentler on the palate. Curious. B+ / $25

Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO – A 10-plus year old Cognac sourced from Dupuy Bache-Gabrielsen in Cognac. Delightfully minty on the nose, followed by the expected raisin notes, plus hints of cloves. The body builds to a sultry, leathery note, studded with tobacco character but balanced with fruit, lots of sweetness — a bit of vanilla, with some burnt marshmallow — and a perfectly crafted finish that pushes out gingerbread, baking spice, and a bounty of those sultry raisins. Great stuff. A / $110