Drinkhacker’s 2013 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Back again by popular demand, it’s the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — or our “best stuff of the year awards” if you want to go that route. As usual, this list is filtered through the lens of the holidays, designed to help you decide what you might buy for the loved ones on your shopping list, should they be whiskey, rum, tequila, or other spirits fans.

The offerings below are but a small selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, with an eye toward things you might actually be able to find on the market (no Pappy on this list… what would be the point?). Got alternatives to suggest or gift ideas you think we missed? Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

Also check out our 2012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Parker's_ALS_Promise of Hope_Bottle ShotBourbon – Parker’s Heritage Collection Promise of Hope ($90) – Hard to go wrong with Bourbon this year, with so many good bottlings to pick from. But for its sheer holiday appropriateness (and quality), I have to go with the new Parker’s Heritage release, bottled in honor of Parker Beam. If you buy a bottle, a full $20 will go to ALS research, which Beam was recently diagnosed with. Other ideas? Where to start: Hillrock Solera ($90, an utter knockout), both Four Roses releases — Single Barrel ($80) and Small Batch ($90) — and Wild Turkey’s new Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Small Batch ($50). On a budget? Try Rough Rider ($33), Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 Year Old ($40), Burnside Double Barrel ($44), or even the controversial Stagg Jr. ($50). But one of my favorite bourbons of the year is also one of its cheapest: The Hooker’s House single-barrel monster of a bourbon, finished in Pinot Noir barrels ($36).

Scotch – Laphroaig Cairdeas Port Wood Edition 2013 ($75) – Slimmer pickins in the world of Scotch this year, as prices have gone and quality has noticeably begun to decline. But this gem from Laphroaig, which is almost pink in color and is exquisite in its balance, is easily my top pick — and still widely available. Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 9 ($250) and Ardbeg Ardbog ($120) are also still on the market, as is Isle of Jura “Juar” 1977 36 Years Old, which can be had for significantly less than its $950 list price. Budget shoppers (well, as “budget” as Scotch gets these days) should not overlook Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve ($87), a new limited edition blend that looks as good as it tastes.

Other Whiskey – WhistlePig “The Boss Hog” Rye 12 Years Old ($150) – I’m adding this new category this year because there are so many other worthy whiskeys on the market that don’t fit into the Bourbon or Scotch mold. It’s hard to pick a favorite here, as Collingwood 21 Year Old Canadian Rye ($70) and Powers John’s Lane 12 Years Old Irish ($65) are neck and neck in quality. But the seductive Boss Hog gets my slight nod for 2013’s most memorable alternative whiskey. Budget-minded shoppers needn’t look beyond Pike Creek Canadian ($37).

master of malt cream ginGin – Master of Malt Worship Street Whistling Shop Cream Gin ($68) – You won’t find a more unique gin for sale this year, or perhaps ever. I’m shocked it’s still on the market. Also worth a look for the juniper fan in the fam: The Russell Henry lineup (3 different gins, $38 each) and the German Monkey 47 ($61, 500ml).

Vodka – Pau Maui Vodka ($30) – An enjoyable vodka distilled from pineapples, giving it added conversation value. Also enjoyable (and giftable) are Absolut Elyx ($50), and 666 Vodka ($28).

Rum – Ron Barceló Imperial Premium Blend 30 Aniversario Rum ($120) – It’s been a rather quiet year for rum, but this rarity is easily on top of my list (and still buyable). Also hunt for Gosling’s Old Rum ($70) and Kirk & Sweeney 12 Years Old ($40).

Brandy – Louis Royer Cognac XO ($140) – Amazing stuff, and my only top-shelf Cognac pick for the year. For something more exotic (and inexpensive) try Encanto’s Acholado Pisco ($35).

50594 Brown FormanHerradura Coleccion ImagesTequila – Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Port Cask Finished Reposado, Reserva 2012 ($90) – Tons of great tequila releases to choose from this year, but my top pick has to go to this unique Herradura bottling, finished in Port casks. This came out in early 2013 but has a 2012 date on it… mind you don’t accidentally pick up the less masterful 2013 release. Also worth considering: Qui Platinum (“white”) Extra Anejo ($60), Tapatio 110 Blanco ($42, 1 liter), and 901 Anejo ($50).

Liqueur – Art in the Age Sage Liqueur ($30) – Try out this unique liqueur as an alternative to juniper-focused spirits for the gin lover on your list; it really switches up a martini or G&T. Also worth a look are Jack from Brooklyn Sorel Liqueur ($40) and the new Luxardo Aperitivo ($20).

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!

AND: Get the gift guide in high-res printable PDF format, ready to take to the store!

Review: Santa Teresa 1796 Ron Antiguo de Solera Rum

santa teresaSanta Teresa 1796 is a blue-chip rum made using the solera process by Venezuela’s oldest rum producer. Aged in ex-Bourbon and Cognac casks, Santa Teresa 1796 was primed with a “mother rum” that was already between four and 35 years old. That’s been being passed down through the solera since 1992 when this brand was launched, and the stack of barrels has been topped off with new rum, which flows down the solera until it finally makes its way into a bottles.

For a spirit this well-aged, the rum is surprisingly fresh and light on the nose, with touches of almonds, coconut, and caramel corn. Hints of evergreen. The palate reveals smooth caramel, with mild vanilla notes, and a supple, well-balanced finish. Any harsh character has been aged out in the solera process, leaving behind a supple, if surprisingly simple, yet nicely aged rum. Complex enough without being overblown.

80 proof.

A- / $40 / ronsantateresa.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: The Real McCoy Rum 5 Years Old

real mccoy rum

The Real McCoy is a new brand that’s just made its way into the U.S. “The Real McCoy” is sourced from Foursquare Distillery in Barbados, where column and pot still rum is aged for five years in oak ex-bourbon barrels. The name refers to Bill McCoy, a Prohibition-era bootlegger and, as bootleggers go, a real stand-up guy.

As for the rum, it’s swell stuff. The nose is at first blush a touch hot, but it settles down with a few minutes of air time, revealing gentle wood notes, some incense smoke, and a slightly winey character that balances out that traditional caramel. On the palate it’s very appealing and easy to sip on. Classic rum structure, with a healthy slug of caramel, and a racy back end with touches of fresh apple, cinnamon, and red pepper. The body and mouthfeel are easy, and the rum has a simple and sweet finish.

It’s solid stuff, completely appropriate for sipping or mixing. It doesn’t reinvent rum’s wheel — it’s ultimately a bit too mild to aspire to top-shelf greatness — but it covers all the bases with a gentle ease and winds up as one of the more refreshing rums on the market.

80 proof.

A- / $30 / realmccoyspirits.com

Review: Deadhead Rum

deadhead rumNo getting around this crazy bottle: It’s in the form of a shrunken head, complete with (real) twine sealing shut the eyes and mouth. (Don’t worry, in actuality it’s just a plastic shell around a glass bottle.)

Inside the skull you’ll find six-year-old rum sourced from Mexico (near Veracruz).

This is a very, very sweet rum, with tons of brown/burnt sugar and marshmallow evident on the nose. The body keeps bringing on the sweet stuff, caramel, chocolate-covered-bananas, mocha with whipped cream… the list goes on and on. As a straight sipper, it’s all a bit much, even for rum, though you do grow accustomed to the sweetness as you work your way through a glass.

Overall, it’s a fine spirit — probably a better mixer than straight — though not entirely distinguished by anything particularly out of the ordinary. Except for the shrunken head bottle, that is.

80 proof.

B / $30 / deadheadrum.com

Review: Papa’s Pilar Rum

papa's pilar rum“Inspired by Ernest Hemingway,” the new Papa’s Pilar Rum brand is a blend of rums from, well, just about everywhere. Casks are sourced from the Caribbean, Central America, and the U.S.A., blended up solera style in Bourbon and Port casks, then finished in Spanish sherry casks. The rum is available in “dark” and “blonde” varieties, which we’ll discuss in detail in a moment.

As for the name: “Papa’s Pilar is meant to rekindle a sense of adventure in us all and replace the Hawaiian shirts and umbrella drinks with which rum has become associated. ‘Papa’ as Ernest Hemingway was known, was possibly the world’s greatest adventurer.  Papa’s Pilar was crafted to be near that same adventure, accompanying rum enthusiasts as they sink their teeth into life.  Named for his muse and one true constant, Pilar is the vessel that allowed America’s literary giant to reach beyond the shoreline, feast on life and remind us to never be a spectator.”

Thoughts on both expressions follow.

Now available in Northern California.

Papa’s Pilar Blonde Rum – A blend of column-distilled rums aged 3 to 7 years old. Blonde is a good descriptor of the color — it’s just vaguely off-white. There’s instant butterscotch on the nose, with cotton candy backing it up. The body features more of the same, plus some coconut and a little bit of funk. The finish brings out those coffee-like sherry notes quite clearly along with a husky, dusky finish. Lots going on here, but I’m not in love with the balance. 84 proof. B / $30

Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum – A blend of pot- and column-distilled rums up to 24 years old. Quite a different animal, with cola and root beer notes that provide a much different experience than the typical dark rum. These soft drink notes come across as well in the body, along with coffee, chocolate, and some amaro character. Cola’s the biggie, though, and it comes through from start to finish, hanging around for ages as it fades away. Again, a really weird, weird rum. Dare I suggest mixing it… with Coke? 86 proof. B / $40

papaspilar.com

Review: Below Deck Ginger Rum

Portlanbelow_deck_gingerd’s Eastside Distilling, which makes the awesome Double Barrel Bourbon, recently launched a line of four naturally-flavored rums. We got a look at one of them — intriguingly spiked with ginger.

Lightly gold colored, the rum has a mild ginger nose, with a bit of soapy quality atop it. Notes of green pepper and olive are in the mix if you go hunting, olfactorily speaking, anyway.

The body is initially innocuous. First it’s just a mildly sweet, slightly apple-tinged rum. Not much to report. Then the ginger hits. Hard, actually. That big bite comes on strong after a few seconds, really gripping the back of your throat and settling in for a good 20 seconds. Finally this fades, leaving behind a bit more of that green pepper character, a counterpoint to the otherwise mild sweetness that is present throughout this experience. Then, take another sip and start all over. Wheeee!

Definitely a mixer.

70 proof.

B / $20 / eastsidedistilling.com

Review: Captain Morgan Sherry Oak Finish Spiced Rum

Captain Morgan Sherry Oak Finish Spiced RumWait a second? Finished rum? Finished, spiced rum? This bizarre and wholly unexpected product from, of all places, Captain Morgan, borrows from the whiskey industry by taking good old Cappy and finishing it in sherry wine casks. There’s not a lot of information about how long it spends in these casks, but the results are clear: This is a sweeter, more citrusy, and surprisingly intriguing rendition of Captain Morgan.

Up front, a familiar cinnamon character pervades the nose, with curious notes of golden raisins and almonds. The body is bolder. Quite sweet, here you get the citrus notes driven by the sherry, along with bright, light fruit, marshmallows, and a long finish that recalls maraschino cherries.

There’s lots going on here, and it’s more complex than standard Cap’n Morgan… but what will people use it for? The nuance of the rum will largely get lost in a glass full of Coke, and I’ve yet to see anyone consume Captain Morgan straight in the real world. That said, as spiced rum goes, this is unusual and unique, and certainly worth a look of this kind of thing is in your wheelhouse. Give it a try while you can; it’s unclear how long it will be on the market.

70 proof.

A- / $20 / captainmorgan.com

Review: Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum

mount gay black barrelRum is undergoing a bit of a revival at present, and even mega-sized bottlers are doing their part to release higher-end, limited-release products.

One of those is Mount Gay Black Barrel. Double-distilled and aged first in regular Bourbon barrels then finished in extra-charred “black” ex-Bourbon barrels, this new rum (no age statement) aims to provide drinkers with a deeper, more enveloping rum experience.

The nose starts off hot, black and red pepper atop caramel notes. Take a sip and things really catch fire: An immediate rush of vanilla quickly fades as the heavy wood character takes over. “Black barrel” is right. I haven’t had this much oak in a spirit since tasting some extra-old Bourbons, which can be heavy, even hoary, with charred wood character. Black Barrel is smoky, chunky, and almost tastes like it’s burned. In the context of rum, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Think heavily burnt sugar and caramel, crystallized to the point where it’s re-solidified. Black Barrel invokes that kind of experience while putting in the context of rum. Keep sipping and you get banana and coconut notes, reminders of Mount Gay’s tropical provenance.

This is a unique and unusual rum, interesting to sip on, but showier in cocktails. Not overly fruit-friendly like most rum, it instead shows its greatest promise when used as a substitute to whiskey in cocktails where the spirit shows more clearly. Try it in a Manhattan. Report back.

86 proof.

A- / $30 / mountgayrum.com

Review: Cruzan Key Lime Rum and Passion Fruit Rum

cruzan key limeCruzan actually makes some credible flavored rums, but things are starting to change. Most notably: With its new flavors, the sugar level is clearly going up and the alcohol level is demonstrably going down. What was once a low 55 proof has now fallen even further to just 42 proof. These two new expressions don’t really come across like rum as all but rather as liquified candy. Is this what consumers are really looking for?

Cruzan Key Lime Rum – Quite a strong lime kick on the nose, but very restrained body, pumped up with sugar. It’s hard to tell this is rum at all, it tastes more akin to Rose’s Lime Juice. A long, sugary, sticky finish reminds you you’re in candyland. C

Cruzan Passion Fruit Rum – Better. Not nearly as sweet, but not as fruity, either. Passion fruit is one of the great, undersung flavoring agents in cocktails, spirits, and juices, and here it makes a less than powerful appearance. And as with the Key Lime, it’s over-sweetened but slightly more tolerable. C+

each $15 / cruzanrum.com

Review: Admiral Nelson’s Spiced Rum

AN Spiced RumThe budget alternative to Captain Morgan (to which it is 2nd in spiced rum market share), Admiral Nelson’s Rum is also named after a real person. In this case it’s a good guy instead of a pirate, the famous British Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Until 2011, Admiral Nelson’s Spiced Rum was produced by Luxco, a smaller company that owns a few random spirits brands. It was then sold to Heaven Hill, or pals in Kentucky, which has its eye on number one. Refreshed packaging has just been introduced — although the eyepatch-wearing, grog-swilling, beard-sporting, tight-pants-donning Nelson still smiles out at you front and center.

How does Nelson’s measure up against Morgan? Not badly, actually. On the nose, light cinnamon and gingerbread notes, backed with vanilla. Not at all boozy, the body is pleasant, quite sweet, and not overly spiced. Gentle and easy, it’s a spiced rum for those who like just a little kick of apple pie in their cola, yet is easy enough to sip straight, not the normal M.O. for a spiced rum. Don’t come looking for complexity — the finish is short, straight, and simple — but few shoppers in the $10 to $12 range have ever made such a request, anyway.

70 proof.

B / $11 (though more typically bought in the 1.75 liter bottle) / admiralnelsonsrum.com