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: Herradura Ultra Anejo

herradura ultra

Clear, filtered anejo tequila is still the big thing in the agave category, and next up in the queue is Herradura, which takes tequila that has spent over 4 years in oak barrels and filters it back to blanco (in color, anyway).

The results are curious and a departure from other tequilas made in this style, starting with very tropical notes on the nose. Pineapple and coconut are both distinct, along with some citrus and a huge slug of marzipan.

On the palate, the sweet almond paste takes center stage, providing a core upon which the rest of the spirit builds. Strong coconut muscles the pineapple down a bit, allowing some interesting floral notes to build — think honeysuckle and white carnations. The finish marks a return to fruity sweetness, a touch more coconut and some chocolate dropping a sugar bomb into the syrupy fruit cocktail that bubbles up for your farewell.

The biggest surprise here is how different this is than most XO tequilas, which are almost always vanilla-heavy monsters that don’t often showcase much nuance. That said, the flavors here would probably be more at home in a rum than a tequila, and this Herradura offering all but wipes away any hint of the agave that was used to make it. That said, it would be crazy to accuse this tequila of being difficult to enjoy on its merits (and at this price, one of the least expensive for an extra anejo I’ve seen).

80 proof.

A- / $50 / brown-forman.com

Review: Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Tequila 2015 Edition – The Rolling Stones Tour Pick

cuervo rolling stone

Here’s a curious crossover. This year’s release of the acclaimed Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Extra Anejo tequila is coming with a familiar pair of lips: The Rolling Stone’s logo.

Bottled to commemorate the band’s 1972 “Tequila Sunrise” tour, this tequila is designed to “celebrate the pivotal role Jose Cuervo played in fueling The Rolling Stones’ notorious 1972 North American tour.” (A non-Stones version of this tequila, same liquid inside, is also available. As well, a Stonesified version of Cuervo Especial is also available.)

This is, as always, a fine extra anejo that fires on all cylinders from beginning to end.

On the nose, the tequila gets started with healthy agave notes that lead to cinnamon, nutmeg, and red chili pepper. The sweetness seems kept a bit at bay aromatically on this year’s expression in comparison to some previous bottlings (for reference, see 20142012, and 2008).

The body plays up that classic Reserva sweetness, offering silky vanilla custard notes that add an herbal kick to the start. The finish does away with the spices, instead building to a conclusion of vanilla ice cream and cinnamon sugar/French toast notes. Slightly lighter in body than in prior years, but soothing and seductive all the way.

80 proof.

A / $150 / cuervo.com

Review: Jose Cuervo Tradicional Tequila (2015)

jose-cuervo-tradicional-reposado-tequilaCuervo’s cheapest 100% agave tequila — Cuervo Tradicional — has been with us for a few years now, but we’re only just now getting around to reviewing the original — the reposado bottling. We first looked at Tradicional Silver four years ago, now we’re hitting it up for a second review, plus a first review of the Tradicional Reposado.

Let’s dig in. Both tequilas are 80 proof.

Jose Cuervo Tradicional Silver Tequila – This is a clean and well-crafted tequila, with moderate herbal, agave notes on the nose. Hints of cinnamon and cloves emerge if you give it time. On the body, the tequila is quite simple, with some citrus and more clove emerging over time. The finish is agave-focused, lightly bitter, and moderate in length. Well made and perfectly fine as a mixer, but it’s a little plain on its own for serious sipping. B / $19

Jose Cuervo Tradicional Reposado Tequila – Aged two months in oak, the legal minimum to call a tequila a reposado. Very pale yellow in color. A blend of caramel and agave starts things off on the nose, with a decent balance between the two notes. On the tongue, it’s significantly sweeter than the Silver, which helps to balance out the spirit’s herbal character. We’re left with some citrus, and a bit of cotton candy on the back end — oddly that pairs pretty nicely with this reposado’s herbal core. Again, this is hardly a special occasion tequila, but for under 20 bucks — and at the same price as the Silver — it’s hard not to think of this for your frozen margarita machine. B+ / $19

cuervo.com

Review: Expresiones de Corazon Barrel-Aged Tequila (Blanco, Buffalo Trace Reposado & Van Winkle Anejo) 2015

Corazón_OldRip_Añejo_Bottle_NoStripBack in 2013, Corazon Tequila had the curious idea to take fresh tequila and age it in high-end bourbon barrels rather than the typical Jack and Jim barrels. With five tequilas aged in a variety of casks — including Sazerac 18, George Stagg, and Old Rip Van Winkle — the project was an exercise in pushing 100% agave tequila even further upmarket.

In 2015, Corazon is back at it, but with a more limited approach. Just three expressions — one of each tequila variety — are being offered this time out. Stagg and Sazerac are out this time around.

The barrel’s not the only twist here. There have also been some upgrades to the agave harvest itself. Says Corazon:

Using 100 percent blue agave from the highlands of Jalisco, the brix for Expresiones del Corazon was measured to determine sugar levels before harvest, rather than a traditional clear cut.  Two sets of agave were harvested, one with a lower sugar content and flavored a little drier, and one with a higher sugar content considered a little sweeter for agave, resulting in more floral notes. The result was a harmonization of the two sets of agave in the amazing Blanco, which was then used as the base for the other Expresiones del Corazon.

We were pretty high on the 2013 bottlings. Let’s look at the 2015s, all 80 proof and poured from individually numbered bottles.

Expresiones de Corazon Artisanal Edition Small-Batch Distilled Blanco – Again, this is unaged tequila that sees no barrel time at all, so it’s a bit strange that it’s part of this collection — and with such a lengthy name, too! Nonetheless, let’s look at this base spirit for the rest of the collection. Unlike 2013’s release, this expression comes across on the nose as relatively mild — and quite fruity, with lemon-heavy notes and a dash of pepper. On the palate, the tequila is very soft, almost to the point of simplicity. Dry and lightly sweet, it’s as harmless a blanco as they come. B / $60

Expresiones de Corazon Buffalo Trace Reposado – Aged in ex-Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels, no time stated. Last edition was 10.5 months. This version is just as strangely pale in the color department, but it’s loaded with aroma and flavor — quite intense vanilla notes, some black pepper, toasted marshmallow, and a gentle herbal, slightly earthy backing that’s driven by the agave. Mild, but quite pleasant. B+ / $70

Expresiones de Corazon Old Rip Van Winkle Anejo – Aged in Old Rip Van Winkle Bourbon barrels, time unstated (2013’s was 23 months). Again, this is the palest anejo you’ll ever see. Racier on the nose, it’s got baking spices, tree bark, and some apple cider notes. This leads to quite a full body which folds together salted caramel, gingerbread, and gentle agave notes into a cohesive and well integrated whole. The collection of flavors are a lot like those in the 2013 edition, but here they’re more in balance and, in the end, they lead to a much more worthwhile spirit. A- / $80

expresionesdelcorazon.com

Review: Milagro Tequila (2015)

Milagro Core AnejoBottleIt’s been seven years since we looked at Milagro’s core line of three tequilas, and that early review is certainly showing its age. It’s time for an update of this readily available and largely affordable Highland tequila. Here’s a look at the standard lineup as of 2015.

All expressions are 100% agave and 80 proof.

Milagro Tequila Silver – An unaged blanco. Vegetal agave, with some sweetness on the nose. The body is relatively lightweight and heavy on sugary character, which leads to a very gentle experience. Notes of tinned peaches, some tobacco, and burnt marshmallow make an appearance, but they don’t add much nuance to an otherwise simplistic experience. Best for mixing. B- / $22

Milagro Tequila Reposado – Aged in oak for three to six months. It’s a very slight improvement over the silver, still sweet, with its agave rounded out with some notes of sandalwood, cinnamon, and dusky cloves. Some raw lumber character develops as the tequila sees time with air. Still not a challenging tequila, but also worthwhile as a mixer. B- / $28

Milagro Tequila Anejo – Aged in oak for 14 to 24 months. Easily the best of the lot, with a better balance of sugar and agave. The lumber has smoothed out as well, adding stronger vanilla notes to the spirit along with some light milk chocolate character and a bit of bitter root essence on the finish. This one’s also the most mellow of the bunch, but it’s still very light bodied and a little thin. Again, it’s harmless tequila, a solid mixer, and a pleasant enough sipper in its own right. B / $35

milagrotequila.com

Review: Santera Tequila, Complete Lineup

Santera-Composite

Santera is a new Highlands-based tequila, 100% blue agave, and bottled in an understated, classy decanter. We tried all three standard expressions. Thoughts on each follow.

All are 80 proof. Available in New York (for now).

Santera Tequila Blanco – Unaged. Modest, but present, agave character is backed by earthy, stony, and flint-like notes. Some sweetness comes to the fore as the body develops, a slight creme brulee note that is laced with touches of red pepper. This is isn’t an incredibly complicated silver tequila, but it finds some grace in its simplicity. B / $42

Santera Tequila Reposado – Aged in oak for up to seven months. Wood is not particularly evident on the nose, but rather the aroma reveals some surprising fruity character — apples and a smattering of tropical fruit, too. The fruit follows through to the palate, tempering the vegetal notes but playing up the inherent sweetness. Again, it’s a simple tequila that doesn’t really try to reinvent the wheel, but the heavy fruit character offers some distinction over other reposados. B+ / $47

Santera Tequila Anejo – Aged in oak for up to 16 months. Here baking spices build up considerably, both on the fruit-pie-meets-Mexican-chocolate nose and on the body. The anejo, surprisingly, offers more heat than the other expressions. That fiery character is compounded by the spicy notes, not just cinnamon and cloves, but cayenne too, the lattermost of which lingers on the palate for quite some time. Chocolate and vanilla make appearances late in the game, alongside some bitter notes — licorice, perhaps — that complement the spices. This is the least cohesive member of the trio, but it’s also the one with the most to say. B+ / $55

santeratequila.com