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: Chateau du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac VS Classique

Tariquet VS Classique avec Etui

Armagnac, in the Gascony region of France near Bordeaux, has long played second fiddle to the better-known and more prestigious Cognac. Subtle production differences exist between the two. Cognac uses up to three grape varieties. Armangac can include four (Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Baco). Cognac is distilled twice, Armangac only once.

Bas-Armangac is the largest of the three subregions within Armangac, and it’s where this bottling from Domaine du Tariquet hails from (the spirits are now denoted Chateau du Tariquet, while the wines carry the Domaine name).

VS is the youngest grade of Armangacs, indicating barrel time of a minimum of three years. Composed of 60% Ugni Blanc and 40% Baco, Tariquet VS is an outstanding introduction to how well-made a young brandy can be.

Youthful and full of punchiness, Tariquet XO Classique offers a nose full of nuts, dried figs, and oak. On the palate, the fruit shines brighter than expected, intermingling notes of citrus with rum raisin, incense, vanilla, mixed dried fruits, and cocoa. The finish is nutty and a bit rustic, but not rough, and the brandy’s not insignificant sweetness carries the day. I wasn’t expecting much from this Armagnac, but I was converted thanks to a surprisingly complicated spirit that really earns its stripes.

Those put off by the VS indicator should give this a taste. The price is comparable to run-of-the-mill Cognacs like Hennessy and Courvosier, but the flavor is more intense and much more intriguing. Consider me a fan!

80 proof.

A- / $35 / tariquet.com

Drinkhacker’s 2012 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

You’re full of meat and pie and perhaps meat pie. Now it’s time to think of your loved ones. Were they naughty? Nice? Do they deserve a fancy tipple when the giving season arrives?

For your most favored loved ones, Drinkhacker offers this collection of our favorite spirits from 2012, just a small sampling of the most worthy products on the market. Dig through the category of your choice for other ideas, and please chime in with your own gift ideas!

Also check out our 2011, 2010, 2009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Want our gift guide in glorious, full-color, printable-magazine style, complete with the original reviews for all of these products? YOU GOT IT!

four roses 2012 small batch limited editionBourbon – Four Roses Small Batch 2012 ($90) – This bad boy’s been topping “best of” lists all season, and for good reason. Perhaps the best Small Batch from 4R since the distillery re-entered the U.S. market, it’s a huge crowd pleaser. Can’t find it (don’t be surprised…), try Elijah Craig Single Barrel 20 Years Old ($130), Woodford Reserve’s unique Four Wood ($100), or Smooth Ambler Yearling ($62), straight outta West Virginia.

Scotch – The Balvenie DoubleWood 17 Year Old ($130) – I’d love to pick Glenfiddich 1974 or Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 3 here, but both are long gone from the market and were absurdly expensive, to boot. You’ll have better luck with the new, older DoubleWood — which, by the way, is replacing the highly-beloved Balvenie Peated Cask on the market — which is in wide distribution now. More ideas? I love Arran Malt’s The Devil’s Punch Bowl ($130) and Ardbeg Galileo ($95). But my real connoisseur’s pick is a stealthy one: Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood Cote Rotie Finish 1991 ($80). Yes, it’s available, and yes, this is pretty much the only thing I want for Christmas.

greenhook ginGinGreenhook Gin ($33) – No knockouts this year, unlike 2011. Greenhook’s elderflower kick makes it a lot of fun. Cardinal ($29) is also a creamy, delicious gin. Update: And due to a tragic oversight, I failed to note the quality of The Botanist ($33).

VodkaSquare One Vodka ($33) – Rock solid, though hardly new to the market. Other excellent choices: Belvedere Intense Unfiltered ($40) or Bully Boy Vodka ($28).

Rum – Rhum J.M. Rhum Vieux Agricole 1997 ($130) – My pick for the most exciting rum of 2012 isn’t sold in the country, but this vintage agricole from Rhum J.M. makes an exquisite gift, too. Lots of great options out there for lower budgets, too, including Blackwell ($30), Ron Fortuna ($22), and Plantation 3 Stars ($24).

Brandy – Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac XO Imperial ($130) – There’s never much new brandy coming out in any given year, and the good stuff costs a pretty penny. At the top of the list for 2012 is this Armagnac, with Camus’ Extra Elegance ($395) close behind. For more affordable selections, check out Camus’ Ile de Re series.

Tequila – t1 Tequila Blanco Ultra-Fino ($40) – In a year of top tequila and absurdly expensive bottlings, these two affordable blancos stood out. t1 looks a little snazzier, if you’re giving a gift. The amazingly balanced Z Tequila Blanco ($30) will save you 10 bucks. Many excellent choices out there this year, as usual.

Liqueur – Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao Ancienne Method ($25) – Turn the Grand Marnier fan in your household on to this, the best orange liqueur on the market and a pittance at just $25 a bottle. For a different fruit effect, check out Germain-Robin Pear de Pear ($24, 375ml), a spirit that will quickly make you forget about lackluster Poire Williams.

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

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

Notes from Domaine Select Wine Estates Pop-Up Tour, October 2012

Our friends at Domaine Select Wine Estates (which handles a lot more than wine) are on the road, “popping up” in a half-dozen cities to let their producers show off their wares. I recently dropped in on the San Francisco installment to experience a few wines that were new to me (1982 Borgogno Barolo, yes please) and some spirits, including a line of Armagnacs from Castarede that are slowly making their way to the States, and WhistlePig’s new limited edition “111” Rye Whiskey. Notes follow!

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Review: Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac VSOP and XO

Montesquiou… man, that is a lot of vowels.

It is also the producer of a lot of Armagnacs. Formerly part of the Pernod family, it’s now being imported by ImpEx, repackaged, and expanding into broader U.S. distribution. We tasted both the VSOP and XO bottlings. Both are 80 proof and made from eaux de vie from Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, and Baco. Thoughts follow.

Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac VSOP – Very nutty, with aromas of nougat, honey, and fresh cut grass. On the palate, flavors of chocolate malt balls, sweet apple and citrus, vanilla, caramel, and a moderate but well-balanced finish. A classic brandy, richer than young Cognacs and arguably more enjoyable. A- / $50

Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac XO Imperial – Immediately more intense on the nose, and huge in the body, this tastes like a classic old Cognac. Really rich with smoothed fruit, marzipan, milk chocolate, more nuts, and a fantastic balance of sweet and smoldering. Exceptionally drinkable, though the price might be a bit hard for some to swallow. A / $130


Review: Single de Samalens Armagnac 8 Years Old

Good armagnac can be elusive, but Single de Samalens makes a compelling case for its revival.

This armagnac is “single distillery, single grape” — Samalens is 100% ugni blanc, aged 8 years — and is designed to be dry (like whisky) instead of sweet.

Sure enough, Single de Samalens has an intensely woody character, not cloying like so much younger brandy. It’s not so much “dry” — it still has a light sweetness to it — but it has a drying finish that makes it more complex than most armagnac. Maybe that’s because it’s missing the funk of most young armagnac, offering a creamy attack and austerity that is surprising for an 8 year old, intense with notes of brandied pastry, butterscotch, cedar and leather, and dried apricots.

I have mixed feelings about the spirit: I like the intensity but it lacks gravitas. For your typical brandy drinker, though, it’s certainly worth exploring as an alternative to everything else out there.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 / singledesamalens.com

Review: Domaine du Tariquet Armagnacs

Arguably the oldest spirit-making region in France, Armagnac is Cognac’s bigger, sometimes crueler brother. Armagnac is located just a bit south of the Cognac region in western France, and like Cognac, it is the home — and the only home — of a distilled spirit that bears its name.

Like cognac (the spirit), armagnac brandy is distilled from grape-based eaux-de-vie (using mostly the same grape varietals) and is aged in oak barrels, but there are key differences between the two brandies. First, armagnac is distilled once instead of twice (as cognac is), and it’s done so in a column still (the type often used for vodka production) instead of pot still (as is used for cognac and Scotch whisky). These differences, along with the variation in growing and aging conditions, are why armagnac is usually considered less refined than cognac.

So, with a little background out of the way, we turn to Domaine du Tariquet, which sent along three armagnacs from its portfolio of 15-plus expressions.

Tariquet Blanche AOC is instantly unique: It’s a white, unaged armagnac from 100% Folle Blanche grapes. Said to be a difficult grape, this spirit immediately reminded me of unaged bourbon, with a grain-like character on the front of the palate. It gives way to some fruit notes, like a good grappa, and overall it makes for a very unusual way to enjoy fine brandy — you know, before its time. Intended to be served chilled. 92 proof. B / price n/a

Tariquet Green Label 15 Years Old is also a 100% Folle Blanche armagnac but it’s aged… for 15 years, of course. It takes on a surprisingly light golden hue, but at 103.8 proof it’s not exactly wanting for flavor. The body is very hot to start with, but reveals a light caramel finish with a kind of apple kick. The heavy alcoholic heat makes it tough to get to the spirit’s charms, however. Cognac and armagnac brandies are not supposed to be cut with water, but try it anyway — it really brings out that caramel note, though it of course leaves you with a more gossamer-light brandy. B+ / $65

Tariquet XO is composed of 60% Ugni-blanc grapes and 40% Baco grapes, and aged a minimum of 15 years before bottling. At 80 proof this is darker and more approachable than the cask-strength 15 year, and the flavor profile is wholly different. Aromas and notes of exotic spices — cinnamon, cloves, and dark wood notes — are immediately apparent, and the finish is long and hot like a Moroccan bazaar. Lots of that trademark armagnac bite here, but fun to get lost in it. Very charming and quite unique, with a baked bread character that you catch once in a while. A- / $100