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: Nautical American Gin

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Vertical Spirits is a new company (founded in 2015), and Nautical Gin is its first product. It’s actually made by Massachusetts-based Berkshire Mountain Distillers on behalf of Vertical, which is based in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Though billed as an “American” gin, stylistically it is harder to peg. The botanicals do hold some curious surprises, the list running thusly: juniper, coriander, Pacific kombu (a coastal vegetable), spearmint, rosehips, lemongrass, angelica root, orange peel, cinnamon, orris root, lemon peel, cubeb, allspice, elderberry, and black pepper.

Some wild stuff in there, but the nose is heaviest on juniper, with notes of mint following close behind. Hints of pepper and clove-heavy allspice mingle among them. The palate is more exotic, with a heavy herbal/juniper character, stronger anise, and lemongrass overtones. The finish is lengthy and heavy with herbs, eucalyptus, earth, and aromatics, making this a nice pick for those who like their gins squarely on the side of earthy, heavily savory botanicals.

Neat bottle.

84 proof.

B / $30 / nauticalgin.com

Review: Bully Boy Estate Gin

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We’ve written about a number of products from Boston-based Bully Boy Distillers. Today we turn our attention to the company’s gin, a unique offering in the world of this juniper-infused spirit.

First, some details from the company:

We start with a base of neutral grain and apple brandy, which we make from distilled hard cider fermented at Stormalong Cidery. We then add standard botanicals such as Albanian Juniper, Coriander, and lemon, and more unique botanicals like local Juniperus Virginiana, Hibiscus, Pink Peppercorn, and a few others we like to keep secret. The end result is a bouquet of aromas and flavors that are both exotic and firmly rooted in New England.

The nose is immediately exotic, offering notes of modest juniper, crisp apple, and a smattering of mixed herbs and floral elements. On the palate, ample juniper again leads the way to some unexpected flavors, including lemongrass, pepper, tobacco leaf, and dried flowers. There’s just a hint of sweetness here, taking the form of light honey notes, which are particularly present on the lasting and lightly herbal finish.

All told, this is a well balanced gin, and it’s one with extra versatility thanks to its hefty 47% abv, letting it find an easy home in a martini or a more complex cocktail.

94 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1

A- / $30 / bullyboydistillers.com

Review: Boodles London Dry Gin

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Founded in 1845, Boodles is a venerable, classic gin — and though it’s been off and on the market from time to time, it’s never been one you much hear about. Perhaps the name, which seems better suited for a cat than a gin, just doesn’t roll off the tongue the way, say, Beefeater does? Show me a red-blooded man that can confidently order a “Boodles Martini” at a bar and I’ll show you, well, a guy that’s probably drinking whiskey.

Named for a famous London gentlemen’s club and reportedly the favorite gin of Winston Churchill (a member there), the Boodles recipe is unique for containing no citrus. Botanicals include juniper, coriander seed, angelica root, angelica seed, cassia bark, caraway seed, nutmeg, rosemary, and sage. It is bottled in two strengths; the higher proof version, designed for the U.S. market, is reviewed here.

Crisp juniper on the nose is balanced by a healthy amount of rosemary, plus some classic earthy notes driven by angelica and various spices. On the palate, things more or less fall into place about as expected for a London Dry. Despite the lack of citrus in the botanical bill, it does show a hint of lemon-like character, which is effective at balancing out the more moderate juniper notes. A touch of cinnamon is present here as well, along with a twist of white pepper. As the finish builds, Boodles takes on a clearer herbal character — think lemongrass vs. lemon peel — and perfumed overtones of white flowers and more gentle pepper notes. The fade-out is clean, but the impact is lasting.

All told, Boodles is an outstanding London Dry that offers uniqueness, but doesn’t stray too far from the course, tweaking the recipe just enough to distinguish itself from Tanqueray, Beefeater, and other staples of the style. Give it a try on its own or in a cocktail, as its gentler juniper character gives it lots of versatility.

90.2 proof.

A- / $23 / boodlesgin.com

Review: Gin Mare

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Gin Mare is billed as a “Mediterranean Gin,” distilled in Barcelona. “Made in small batches in a copper pot still with 250 liters of capacity per batch, Gin Mare’s key botanicals include Arbequina olive, thyme, rosemary and basil, each sourced from four different Mediterranean countries.” (Citrus fruit and green cardamom are also components.) “Distinguishing itself from traditional London dry gins, the spirit highlights its botanicals through the use of premium barley base, delicate maceration, individual distillation and authentic blending.”

The key takeaway in all of that is a single word: olive. By using olives as a flavoring agent, Gin Mare takes a martiniesque shortcut that I haven’t really encountered before. The nose has a distinct olive note, plus a lacing of black pepper, mixed dried herbs, and a bit of green onion. Quite savory on the nose, the body finds room for some sweeter stuff, with light notes of simple syrup that fade into clearer notes of rosemary, earthy cardamom, and lemon peel. The finish remains restrained and savory and reminiscent of an olive tapenade with a lemon twist upon it. Note however that there’s scarcely a hint of juniper throughout the experience.

What a unique, quirky, and curious gin! It’s several big steps off the beaten path, but it’s so intriguing — and enjoyable — that it hardly matters. Whether you think of this as gin or olive-flavored vodka is completely beside the point. Try it in your next martini.

85.4 proof.

A / $38 / ginmare.com

Review: Boardroom Vodka and Gin

boardroom-vodka

Now that Trump Vodka is defunct, what is a discerning CEO to use to make his martini? Might I suggest Boardroom Vodka or Gin? Seems like the perfect thing to sip on before you utter, “You’re fired.”

Boardroom Spirits is a new company that hails from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, where it distills its white spirits from a mash of 100% non-GMO corn in a column still. (Additional spirits, not reviewed here, are both in production and planned.)

We tasted the two big guns from Boardroom to get things started.

Both are 80 proof.

Boardroom Vodka – Clean nose, very medicinal — almost nostril-scorching with its strong hospital character. On the palate the vodka is less overwhelming, giving up some sweetness and a touch of popcorn character, slightly nougat-like on the back end. Otherwise, it’s quite straightforward and neutral, with very little in the way of secondary character. With a foot in both the old world and the new, it’s an unusual vodka, though not one without some measure of both charm and versatility. B+ / $20

Boardroom Gin – Billed as “the non-gin drinker’s gin,” botanicals are not disclosed. Aromas run heavily to lemon and grapefruit, with floral honeysuckle notes following along. On the palate, it offers some of the same sweet notes as the vodka, which tempers the fruit and flowers, but the finish is quite clean, fading out with just a hint of citrus. I’m sure this is billed as a “non-gin drinker’s gin” because of its distinct lack of juniper, which is present to some degree but really dialed back to the point where it largely comes across as an element in the finish. The pungency of the botanicals feel very gin-like, however, and I expect both gin drinkers and non- will find it appealing. B+ / $27

boardroomspirits.com

Review: Langley’s No. 8 London Dry Gin

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Langley’s is a brand of gin newly available in the U.S., thanks to Terlato, which is importing it. No “New Western” business here. This is a classic London Dry style of gin that will strip the enamel off your teeth with the pungency of juniper.

But first, some background.

Made in small batches from 100% English grain, Langley’s No. 8 takes its name from the century-old Langley’s Distillery, a contract distiller that never before had allowed its name to appear on a spirit brand. Distilled in “Connie,” a small copper pot still nicknamed after the master distiller’s mother, the classic flavor of Langley’s No. 8 comes from a mixture of eight botanicals, including juniper berries from Macedonia, coriander seeds from Bulgaria, sweet orange peel and sweet lemon peel from Spain, cassia bark from Indonesia, and ground nutmeg from Sri Lanka. The last two ingredients are a secret! The result is aromatic notes of spicy juniper, zesty citrus and a smooth, rounded finish.

And the number 8? The makers tested every alcohol percentage between 40% and 45% to determine which would give the right balance of alcohol without being overpowering, ensuring that the true flavors came through. After testing 12 different samples with a team of experts and a consumer panel prepared in 10 different cocktails, they decided the 8th batch was the finest, and so, Langley’s No. 8.

It’s no joke on the juniper, which kicks off with a huge slug of the evergreen character. The nose takes things head-on into that deeply herbal, juniper-driven territory but it does manage to find room for hints of grapefruit and lemon, plus a touch of black pepper. The palate surprises with a hint of sweetness up front before quickly returning to that bold and racy juniper blast, which dominates things until a smattering of secondary characteristics finally bubble up. Think cinnamon, some earthy notes driven by the coriander, and again a hint of pepper.

Fans of traditional and juniper-heavy gins will get a kick out of this; for my tastes, though, it is a bit monochromatic with the juniper just about destroying everything in its path.

83.4 proof.

B / $42 / langleysgin.com

Review: No. 3 London Dry Gin (2016)

no3 gin Martini w_bottle LR

Five years ago we sampled Berry Bros. & Rudd’s classic gin, No. 3. Little seems to have changed; this is still a pot-distilled gin with a mere six ingredients: juniper, orange peel, grapefruit peel, angelica root, coriander, and cardamom. Recently I had the good fortune to attend a lunch hosted by No. 3 at San Francisco’s Wingtip club, where the meal was paired with three different (very small) martinis, designed to showcase different presentations of No. 3 in a classic cocktail. My favorite, surprisingly, was the Dukes Martini, which is ice-cold No. 3, an atomized spritz of dry vermouth, and a lemon twist — the lemon peel just really popped with the citrus notes in the gin, really elevating the spirit

I was less of a fan of the “Classic” Martini with more dry vermouth and orange bitters, but the Martinez — with sweet vermouth, maraschino, and angostura, also shined, particularly as a pairing with creme brulee. (See photos below.)

As for the gin itself, my notes have changed little since the initial release. It’s a juniper-forward spirit with a bitter river running through it — likely driven heavily by the grapefruit peel — with a finish that offers both oily citrus notes and light floral elements. Some earthiness creeps in toward the back, along with a slightly sweet, fruity kick. This is gin without a lot of fluff, stripped down to its basics, which makes for a clean and refreshing spirit.

92 proof.

A- / $35 / no3gin.com

Review: Headframe Spirits Anselmo Gin and Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur

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Butte, Montana is the home of Headframe Spirits, a craft distiller that at present makes a total of five products. Today we look at two: a gin and, intriguingly, a craft bourbon cream liqueur.

Headframe Spirits Anselmo Gin – Flavored with 12 botanicals, mostly unnamed with the exception of “citrus and huckleberry.” The results are unique, with a distinct fruitiness on the nose — not citrus, but more of a fresh strawberry (though perhaps that’s huckleberry) character. Juniper is a distant echo beneath the up-front rush of fruit. The palate is equally unique for gin — sweet and fruity with more notes of strawberry jam, plus lemongrass, grapefruit peel, and an earthy element that lingers on the back of the throat. There’s juniper in that element, but even there it’s dialed way, way back. That said, the sweet and earthy components of this gin are a bit at odds with one another. The finish has a slight tinge of solvent to it, but it doesn’t linger. That fade-out is reserved for a reprise of that berry business. 80 proof. B+ / $30

Headframe Spirits Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur – This straightforward bourbon cream (presumably made with Headframe’s own bourbon), starts off with a sweet and milky nose, with overtones of vanilla and maple. The palate offers ample brown sugar, more vanilla, and the essence of chocolate milk. On the finish we find some of the bourbon’s heat creeping into the back of the palate, adding a spicy kick that mixes well with a somewhat cocoa-heavy conclusion. A solid, but simple, effort. 35 proof. B+ / $22

headframespirits.com

Review: South Hollow Spirits Dry Line Gin

View More: http://organicphotography.pass.us/south-hollow

Massachusetts-based South Hollow Spirits focuses on rum, but it also makes gin, particularly this bottling, which is, like its rum, made from 100% sugar cane. More specifically, here’s the full process:

Dry Line Cape Cod Gin is a small batch, twice-distilled spirit made from organic sugar cane juice. The sugar cane juice is fermented for three weeks and distilled for the first time before the botanicals are added. After the first distillation, the gin moves to 55 gallon steel drums to spend 48 hours steeping with large hemp bags containing a carefully curated local selection of botanicals, including Eastern Red Cedar juniper berries, orange peel, lemon peel, cardamom, allspice, coriander, orris root, grains of paradise, angelica root, anise, and dried cranberry. This infusion method enables the spirit to absorb essential oils from the botanicals before it is redistilled and brought to its final proof of 94.

That’s a pretty traditional botanical bill (cranberry aside); in fact the use of sugar cane as the fermentation base is the biggest twist. It comes through on the finished product, which offers a nose of light juniper, rosemary, and lots of vanilla-citrus sugar layered underneath the herbs. The palate is extremely soft for a gin of this alcohol level, juniper-restrained and silky with light notes of hazelnuts, cloves, and even some milk chocolate. The finish is sweet and lengthy, folding light herbal notes into some lingering sweetness. All told it’s quite unorthodox for a gin, but surprisingly worthwhile in the unique story it has to tell.

Think of it, perhaps, as a juniper-infused white rum.

94 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1, bottle #22.

A- / $45 / southhollowspirits.com

Review: Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin

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The ornate and elaborate label on D. George Benham’s gin looks like it could be straight out of old Londontown, but the truth is it hails from Sonoma County, California. What’s a “Sonoma Dry Gin?” As Graton Distilling Co. owner Derek George Benham describes, it’s a cross between old school London Dry and fruitier New Western styles. This column-distilled gin is infused with 12 botanicals, including juniper, coriander, Meyer lemon, Buddha’s Hand citrus, chamomile, peppermint, orris root, cardamom, grains of paradise, angelica root, star anise, and galangal (a ginger-like root) — so a little off the beaten path, but nothing too terribly crazy.

The nose is fresh, almost pungent with both juniper and citrus; as a melding of styles goes, Benham’s starts off especially strong. You catch a touch of ginger aromas here, too, which adds nuance and intrigue. On the palate, the body is loaded with flavor: bright citrus — lemon and grapefruit — plus fresh ginger notes, gentle juniper, and a racy finish that, again, recalls the ginger notes on the nose. I keep going back to it… there’s a subtle floral note that emerges over time, and a light undercurrent of earthiness. All told, the gin’s balance is impressively spot-on, dancing among the various components on the palate until the finish — hot but not oppressive, a bit oily but otherwise quite clean — eventually fades out.

It’s a versatile spirit that works well with any mixer as well as on its own or in a martini. Bold and powerful but also decidedly refined, I don’t hesitate to call this one of the best gins of the year.

90 proof.

A / $40 / gratondistilling.com

Review: Stirk’s Gin Oak Barrel Finished

Stirk's Gin Bottle Shot

“Stirk” of Stirk’s Gin is David Stirk, the creator of the Exclusive Malts line of Scotch whiskies, and this is his gin, or rather, some sourced London Dry that was placed into recently-dumped single malt Scotch barrels for finishing (the amount of time in barrel is unstated). The results? Let’s take a look.

It’s got an unusually heavy amount of juniper on the nose for a barrel-aged gin, but the intense evergreen and spice aromas driven by the distillation are just prologue for what’s to come. The nose leads to a palate that melds fresh botanicals with ample, but not overwhelming, barrel influence — with flavors of vanilla custard, banana cream, and some toasty wood notes. That may sound awfully whisky-like, and indeed Stirk’s Gin is just that, a rich and surprisingly creamy spirit that finishes like a flan that’s somehow gotten mixed up with a classic G&T.

That all may sound odd, but Stirk’s works out better than most mashups. Both Scotch and gin fans should give it a try, should the opportunity present itself.

92 proof.

B+ / $40 / impexbev.com