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: Patron Citronge Mango Liqueur

patron citronge

Patron’s third installment in the Citronge lineup turns to our friend the mango for its core flavor component after Orange and Lime. Is Patron getting too out-there? Too cute?

Turns out mango works pretty well in a sweet liqueur, and it gives a margarita an interesting spin vs. orange-standard triple sec.

The nose is heavy tropical mango to be sure, tinged a bit with peach notes. As with other Patron Citronge products, the body evokes some herbal notes that are evocative of tequila’s agave core, which give the fruit core a bit of a chili-dusted character. Rest assured, this is a heavily sweetened liqueur, and the sugar component is intense. A touch will go a long way toward brightening up a cocktail — but the mango note will hit the strongest on the nose, that sugar going a long way toward drowning out everything else.

10 bucks says Citronge Pineapple is next.

70 proof.

B / $20 / patrontequila.com

Review: Maloney’s Irish Country Cream

Maloneys-Irish country cream (1)Like your Irish Cream with a double helping of sugar? You’ll love Maloney’s, another entry into the incredibly popular dessert liqueur category.

Something’s immediately off with Maloney’s from the moment you sip it. First there’s the heavy butterscotch notes, then the lengthy brown sugar and creamy, light whiskey character. The butterscotch is a little odd, but the body is more or less on target.

Then comes the finish, and something ain’t right. It’s hard to place — a little bitter, slightly metallic, with a sour edge as it fades away. An aftertaste starts to build after a minute or so, and Maloney’s takes on the unmistakable funk of oxidized white wine. The kind of flavor of a bottle of white half-drank, then recorked and left for a few days. This is what my aunt would serve us with the warning, “Watch out, it’ll bite ya back!”

Maloney’s doesn’t quite bit you back, but I kind of wish it did. Instead that pungent finish wipes out most of what came before, ruining any goodwill it might have had.

Why does Maloney’s taste like old wine? Because it is made from wine! No joke: This is a grape wine flavored with Irish cream additives. That keeps the alcohol low — at 13.9% it’s lower than most table wines (Bailey’s is 17%) — so the bridge club can down a whole bottle with no ill effects. To the liver, anyway.

C- / $8 / terra.ie

Review: Sukkah Hill Spirits Etrog and Besamim Liqueurs

etrog bottleSukkah Hill Spirits is a new, artisan producer of eastern-inspired liqueurs that is based in southern California. These spirits are both sweet liqueurs, with no corn syrup added, all natural ingredients, no preservatives, and all the other good stuff that you’d expect from a company with a name like Sukkah Hill.

We checked out both of the company’s offerings for review. Thoughts follow.

Sukkah Hill Spirits Etrog Liqueur – A citrus liqueur, pale yellow in color. The nose offers both lemon-lime and floral elements in a heady mix. The body however is more specific, loaded with key lime notes, a healthy slug of cane sugar syrup, and a flowery note that evokes orange blossoms. The balance takes things a bit closer to sweet than sour — making this more evocative of a triple sec than you might expect. Use in lieu of that liqueur, Cointreau, or even Grand Marnier in your favorite cocktails. Or try straight as an alternative to Limoncello. 76 proof. A- / $24 (375ml)

Sukkah Hill Spirits Besamim Aromatic Spice Liqueur – A glass of chai, without the cream. Cinnamon and cloves dominate the nose, taking it well beyond the level of “Christmas spices.” As the body builds, it takes those spices and folds in a touch of vanilla and some dark brown sugar. Initially a bit overwhelming, it eventually settles into its own. Besamim isn’t as sweet as Etrog, but it can still hold its own solo or as a component in a more exotic cocktail. Consider coffee, cream, and/or whiskey in your mix. 74 proof. B+ / $28 (375ml)


Review: Amaro di Angostura

Amaro di Angostura

Bored with Fernet? Hardcore bartenders — and few other people — take things one step further: They drink Angostura bitters as a shot. (Never mind that they are not classified as a potable beverage.)

Now you needn’t be that insane to get the flavor of pure Angostura in a proper beverage, as the Trinidad-based distiller (which also makes tons of rum, of which reviews are coming soon) has released Amaro di Angostura, which adds some sugar and spice to temper the bitters’ classic pungency into something more palatable. Per the House of Angostura: “The blenders combined Angostura aromatic bitters with some neutral spirit and added more spices… until a magnificent herbal liqueur was created – the spirit, spices and bitter herbs were mixed and then left to marry for 3 months.”

Classic Angostura notes on the nose — dark cherries, root beer, cloves, and licorice. The body is far sweeter than you expect it will be (and a much different experience than tippling on Ango straight). Sweet cinnamon candies are at the forefront of the palate, then some of that licorice and root beer come along a bit later. Cherry-infused caramel sauce encompasses the finish, with a lingering, though far from overwhelming, bitterness.

Ultimately this is a far different experience than I was expecting, neither Angostura-light nor a Fernet clone, but rather a surprisingly sweet confection that makes for quite pleasant after-dinner — or anytime — sipping.

70 proof.

B+ / $27 / angostura.com

Review: Jameson Wild Sloe Berry Bitters

Unveiled for Tales of the Cocktail 2015, Jameson released its first-ever bitters, taking them to an unexpected and exotic place: the sloe berry.

The sloe berry is primarily known — OK, exclusively known — for its use in sloe gin. Here, Jameson blends up sloe berry distillate, Jameson whiskey, a mix of bittering agents that includes wormwood, gentian, and ginseng, plus a bit of caramel color to produce a distinctive new bitters.

The nose is distinctively tart and fruity, backed with an appropriately root beer overtone. On the tongue, it’s (of course) quite bitter, but not as tough as you might think, with the tart sloe berries offering some balance. The finish sticks closely to the gentian/wormwood playbook, which is really just what you want from a bottle of bitters.

Of course this is not meant for solo consumption, and the sloe berry element is a surprisingly perfect foil for whiskey. While I know this is intended as a complement for Irish, give it a go with bourbon to coax out some lovely cherry notes.

92 proof.

A- / $NA (available only to bars) / jamesonwhiskey.com

Review: Mystic Bourbon Liqueur

mystic liqueurBottled by a company called Barrister & Brewer in Durham, North Carolina, Mystic Liqueur is a sweet concoction combining bourbon and “exotic spices.” Based on a “centuries-old Scottish recipe” (presumably not one involving Bourbon), it’s a New World spin on Drambuie that deserves a look.

The nose hints at both the honey and cinnamon of today’s popular, flavored whiskeys — such as Fireball and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey. Both elements are very mild — just a touch of extra sweetness and a slightly greater dusting of Red Hots. The body largely follows suit, with the cinnamon and honey backed up with some notes of ginger, lemon peel, and brewed tea elements (the latter is particularly . The finish is warming and soothing — a hot toddy served at room temperature.

All told it’s a mild experience that plays well as an after-dinner sipper. Those looking for more intensity of flavor — the whiskey character is the least present of the various components — may find Mystic a little underbaked, but as a gentler example of the flavored whiskey/liqueur trend, a few glasses of this don’t make for a bad way to spend an evening.

60 proof.

B+ / $26 / whatismystic.com

Maraschino Head to Head: Bols vs. Luxardo vs. Maraska

bols maraschinoMaraschino is an essential liqueur in many a classic cocktail — especially the Casino and the Hemingway Daiquiri — but it’s one of the few categories where only a small number of producers, typically wicker-clad European brands, hold sway. The biggest of these is Italy’s Luxardo. Croatia’s Maraska is another commonly-seen version of the liqueur.

Now comes a new entry in the form of mass-producer Bols, the Dutch liqueurists with a panoply of fruit-flavored concoctions on the market.

Can Bols Maraschino stand up to the icons of the category? I’d never formally reviewed Luxardo Maraschino or Maraska, so what better time than the present? I tasted these blind so as not to sway my opinion with fancy branding. The identifying — and surprising — details were added later.

Thoughts follow.

Bols Maraschino – There’s not so much cherry on the nose here as there are tropical lychee and flowery perfume notes, with a sort of medicinal cherry flavor on the back end. Quite sweet and syrupy, it’s got a gummy finish that smacks of added gelatin. 48 proof. C+ / $15

Luxardo Maraschino – This is a wildly different experience. It’s sharp and astringent on the nose, not sweet at all. Oddly, it offers primarily granary aromas — cereal and fresh hay — rather than the intense cherry character one expects. Fruit comes along, but it’s almost an afterthought, relegated to the background. Frankly, the combination is slightly off-putting. The palate brings more balance, but it’s still got that heavy grain maraskafocus that surprisingly reminds me of animal feed. The fruit is indistinct, but it finally comes around as an echo on the finish. The ultimate character is something closer to a fruit brandy than a liqueur — which is either a good thing or a bad, depending on what you want out of your maraschino. 64 proof. B / $29

Maraska Original Maraschino – A nice balance between the two styles above, with brandy-like aromatics and lots of floral notes on the nose, backed up by sweet cherries. On the palate, the cherries are clear and sweet, but not overpowering. Those floral elements play on the palate as well, adding a spicy distinctness and complexity to the mix. This is the only one of these three I’d consider drinking neat (and the only one in which I polished off the sample glass), but it seems tailor-made for adding round cherry notes plus exotic floral elements to a cocktail. 64 proof. A / $27

The winner? Maraska makes a surprising upset over the better-known Luxardo, by quite a wide margin.

Review: Braulio Amaro Alpino

braulioBraulio’s an Italian amaro… alpino. Alpino? From the alpine mountains, which gives it a bit of a different spin than what you might be used to.

Braulio originated in 1875, and it’s created with a blend of 13 herbs. Only four are known to the public: gentian, juniper, wormwood, and yarrow. The rest of the ingredients remain secret.

Well there’s definitely spearmint here (or some kind of mint, anyway), and it’d be safe to bet on cinnamon, cloves, and orange peel, all of which seem to make an appearance on the palate. The nose keeps things heavy on the mint, and the body folds that into a moderate to intense bitterness that takes you to a quite lengthy and bittersweet finish.

All in all, Braulio drinks like a traditional amaro that adds in a big, minty punch. For after-dinner sipping, it hits the right spot.

42 proof.

A- / $32 / domaineselect.com

Review: Vov Zabajone Cream Liqueur

vovPrimary colors on the label. A name in quotes — “VOV” — and all caps, at that. Opaque, white bottle. What the hell is Vov?

Vov looks like something a clown would have to nurse to get through his next birthday party, but in reality, it’s an exotic Italian cream liqueur. This “traditional Italian Zabajone Cream Liqueur is made from egg yolks, sugar, and the highest quality, aged Sicilian Marsala Superiore,” per the Molinari family, which imports it to the U.S. Here’s more backstory on the stuff:

Italy’s #1 selling liqueur, VOV was created in 1845 by Gian Battista Pezziol, a confectioner and nougat specialist from Padua. Looking for a way to use the leftover egg yolks from his nougat-making process, Pezziol mixed them with Marsala wine, alcohol and sugar to make an energy drink, a popular trend at the time. He named the beverage VOV, short for “vovi,” the Venetian word for eggs. An immediate success, the drink won a silver medal in 1856. That same year, the Archduke of the Court of Vienna issued a patent with the royal double headed eagle. The spirit remained prevalent into the 20th century and was consumed by the troops during World War II for its energizing properties. VOV is the perfect substitute for modern and classic cocktails that call for a fresh egg.

How do you drink it? Warm or cold, neat or on the rocks, or in cocktails, the bottle tells us. Some people put it in coffee, I’m told. As it’s similar to an advocaat, try it in a Bombardino cocktail — half brandy or rum, half Vov. (You can add whipped cream and/or coffee if you like.)

Well, it sure does look disgusting. An opaque and milky off-white in color, the mind reels at all the negative connotations one can draw with reality and this stuff. It’s intensely sticky. Get one drop on your hands and you’ll need to scrub them. Don’t be afraid of the soap.

On the nose, it’s mainly driven by intense sugar — like a creme brulee plus some cinnamon notes — but with a sharp/sour citrus edge reminiscent of baby vomit. Notes of licorice and burnt butter bubble up in time. The body is where the egg yolk starts to really show, gooey and, indeed, intensely eggy, adding in notes of sticky sugar syrup and marshmallow, lemon peel, and a winey influence driven by the Madeira. The body isn’t as thick as you’d think, and the slight wateriness adds to an overall weak impression when served neat. The finish is absolutely mouth-coating, sickly sweet-and-sour and simply impossible to shake for a solid five to ten minutes after taking a sip.

Few people probably drink Vov like this, so I tried it with rum and ice. It’s a considerable improvement, but the funky nose seems somehow stronger and the sour aftertaste still lingers. Now I’m not a guy who’s ever enjoyed a cup of eggnog, so I can see how Vov would not exactly be my cup of tea. But still, Vov has got to be the very definition of an acquired taste.

Eggnog fans, dig right in — and let the hating begin.

35.6 proof.

D- / $27 (1 liter) / vovzabajone.com

Update 9/6/2015: Unthrilled with this review, the Vov folks sent me a shopping list and a number of cocktail recipes that would showcase how well Vov worked as a mixer. I made all four of the following with a fresh bottle of Vov and can absolutely attest that cocktails like this are a marked improvement over Vov on its own. That said, some of these are more successful than others, particularly the Orange Julius-like Arancia Fizz and the surprising, foamy, sweet-and-sour-infused Fluffy Vov. If you’ve got some Vov sitting around and don’t know what to do with it, give one of these a try tonight.

Arancia Fizz
2 oz. VOV
2 oz. Orange juice
3 oz. Sparkling orange soda or ginger ale

Add ingredients to a highball glass filled with ice and roll (empty contents back and forth between a shaker tin and the highball glass until well mixed). Garnish with an orange slice.

Madagascar Spritz
Created by Tim Cooper
1.5 oz VOV
2 Orange half wheels
4 oz Club Soda

Mash the orange slices with a muddler or bar spoon in the bottom of a Collins glass.  Add Vov, ice and club soda. Stir. Garnish with an orange half wheel.

Created by Tim Cooper
1.5 oz VOV
1.5 oz Pineapple juice
1.75 oz Unsweetened Almond Milk
2 dashes Angostura bitters (optional)
Freshly grated cinnamon

Place all ingredients into a mixing glass and shake with ice. Strain over new ice into a wine glass. Garnish with a pineapple leaf & freshly grated cinnamon. This drink can also be blended.

Fluffy VOV
Created by Lucinda Sterling
2 oz gin
1 oz VOV
1 oz heavy cream
3/4 oz fresh lemon/lime juice
Few drops orange blossom water

Shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a fizz glass, without ice, and top with club soda.