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, with a flood of excellent extra anejos really showing their stuff in 2015. 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: 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

cognac-paulgiraud.com

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: 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

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

brandedspirits.com

Review: Merlet Cognac Selection Saint-Sauvant Assemblage No. 1

merlet

Cognac’s Merlet is back with another new brandy, Selection St. Sauvant, a limited-edition blend that is made… well, we’ll let Merlet do the talking:

“Assemblage N°1” (Blend N°1) was bottled in 2013. This delicate cognac is a marriage of “eaux-de-vie” from the Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne aged over 10 years as well as from the Fins bois (1992 and 2001) and from the Petite Champagne (1993). The alcohol strength is then slowly reduced to allow a perfect balance of flavors. This cognac is unique and produced as a limited edition.

Quite fruity on the nose, the Cognac offers notes of peaches, tropical fruits, vanilla extract, and intensely perfumed aromatics. The body is immediately engaging, offering deep fruit notes atop quite a bit of bite, and a growing nutty character that emerges more clearly as the finish reaches its climax. The extra alcohol here is evident throughout, giving this brandy a headiness and punch that more gentler, lower-proof brandies simply don’t provide. But it’s the aromatics that lend a special character to St. Sauvant, melding gentle wood notes with clove-studded oranges, apricots with chocolate sauce. It’s a bit punchy from start to finish, but fun stuff, through and through.

90.4 proof. Less than 800 bottles available in the U.S.

A- / $100 / merlet.fr

Review: Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP Cognac

LOUIS ROYER_FORCE 53 VSOP silo

Most Cognac is bottled at the usual 80 proof, but Louis Royer’s Force 53 says screw that, let’s take a cue from the fellas in the whiskey world and go megaproof.

The choice of 53% abv (106 proof) isn’t accidental. The House of Royer got its start in 1853. Lucky for them, I guess, that the business didn’t launch in 1799. Or 1801.

From a spec standpoint, the higher alcohol level is the major distinguishing feature of Louis Royer Force 53. Otherwise it’s a standard VSOP Cognac in composition, which means that technically the spirit’s been aged a minimum of just four years in cask.

Turns out the extra alcohol (and some smart knowhow) makes quite a difference. Many VSOPs are perfectly drinkable and full of life, but few have the punch and power of Force 53. What could have come across as almost watery in an 80 proof Cognac is instead, well, forceful and lively in this bottling. Here, notes of caramel apple take on more apple pie-like overtones on the nose. The body is delightfully rich, dusted with cinnamon and cocoa powder, offering fig and raisin notes on the back end. That classic Cognac sweetness is unmistakable throughout, all those fresh citrus, apple pie, banana cream, and molten caramel notes building to an expressive and delightful — yet still youthful — whole.

For barely 40 bucks, you will be hard pressed to find a brandy of any ilk that is as well-balanced and downright enjoyable as Force 53, and Royer may very well find it has launched a big trend with this “high strength” idea in a world where 80 proof has long ruled the roost.

A / $43 / louis-royer.com

Review: The Last Drop 1950 Fine Aged Cognac

last drop 1950 cognac

The Last Drop is a company with an amazingly fun story: It sources its spirits from shuttered, abandoned, or “lost” distilleries. When you buy the company’s product, that’s it. They’re gone and no one is going to make them again.

That’s a powerful promise of rarity. The Last Drop says it “found these casks in a tiny distillery lost in the woods near Cognac.” So, yeah, you aren’t getting any more of this stuff.

The Last Drop 1950 starts with a classic Cognac nose of old fruit, raisins, incense, and well-aged wood. It’s got a bit of a funky, almost burning undercurrent to it — like an old rhum agricole — offering notes of coconut husk and fuel oil. The body is immediately austere, with sherried stone fruits, balsamic, and oiled leather. With a salted caramel/cocoa powder back end, things start to go out on a lightly sweet high note, but the finish is so drying and woody that it sucks all the fruit away completely, ending on an almost astringent overtone.

That said, it’s a unique Cognac and an excellent example of what very old brandy is like. At this price, though, you might want something that’s still firing on all cylinders, and which is more balanced from start to finish.

83.6 proof. 478 bottles made (each includes a 50ml miniature as a bonus).

B+ / $2,600 / lastdropdistillers.com

Preview: Cognac Lheraud Cuvee 20 and 1974 Vintage

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Cuvee Lheraud (lerr-oh) is a family-owned Cognac producer that makes a million bottles of brandy every year all from its estate vineyards. And you’ve never heard of them, because until now they have not sold products in the United States.

This fall, Lheraud arrives on U.S. shores, bringing its unique spin on Cognac to our esteemed shores. While it makes single-vintage editions much like many other high-end producers, it also takes the same approach to its higher-end non-vintage dated blends. As Export Manager Francois Rebel explained to me on a recent visit to San Francisco to introduce the brand, the various cuvee bottlings, including the 20 year old Cuvee 20, are made from casks of exactly that age. This year’s Cuvee 20 was made from casks distilled in 1994. Next year it’ll be 1995 casks, and so on. Doesn’t this cause a problem with consistency from year to 013year, if you can’t blend from other vintages to achieve a flavor profile that doesn’t vary from year to year? Yes. But that’s the way we do it, says Rebel. Some years customers may not like the changes, but “Lheraud does not blend.”

Neat idea, though I could never get a clear explanation of why the Cuvee 20 doesn’t indicate it’s a Cuvee 20 distilled in 1994 — which would seem to boost sales. Ah, the French!

Rebel tasted me on two of the distillery’s upcoming releases, and my thoughts are below. Note: Our sampling was quite limited to small tastes, so these should be considered preview descriptions and ratings and not canonical reviews. Prices are estimated based on overseas pricing. Will update with official pricing when it is available.

Cognac Lheraud Cuvee 20 (2014 Bottling) – Made from grapes from the Petite Champagne region. Classic style for a Cognac this age, light incense and raisin notes atop a sweet core that offers oaky, almond, and honey notes on the palate. Easy to like. 86 proof. B+ / $70

Cognac Lheraud 1974 Vintage – Made from Grand Champagne-grown grapes. A 40 year old bottling, bottled at cask strength — unusual for any Cognac. More exotic on the nose than the Cuvee 20, it offers darker chocolate and nut character, dark raisins, dried figs, and drying, resinous oak on the finish. Less sweet than the Cuvee, but it still has plenty of sugar to go around. Complex and worthwhile. 98 proof. A / $500+

cognac-lheraud.com

Review: Cognac Claude Chatelier XO

cognac-claude-chatelier-xo-extra-b

I recently encountered this Cognac for the first time on a trip. I wasn’t familiar with the brand at all, but was pleasantly surprised by what I found inside the bottle of its XO release. No age statement is provided.

Perfectly fruity nose, with notes of cherry, apricot, and a bit of ruby Port. Some woody notes give it an incense character, too. On the palate, again the fruit dominates, offering pretty citrus, touches of plum, vanilla, and more of that woodsy incense character. A touch of heat makes the finish a bit racy, just enough to give this Cognac some curiosity, keeping it from devolving into an an utter fruit bomb. An all-around excellent effort at a very affordable price level.

80 proof.

A- / $50 / claudechateliercognac.com