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: 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: Smirnoff Red, White & Berry Vodka

smirnoff-rwb

This limited edition seasonal was technically released for the summer and the Fourth of July, but it fell through the cracks and finally resurfaced here at Drinkhacker HQ. (Don’t worry, there’s plenty still available, even though it’s November.)

This flavored vodka packs three different elements into a single bottle: cherry, citrus, and blue raspberry. That is a damn lot of sweetness packed into one red, white, and blue-clad bottle, and even nosing it can be daunting. Powerfully aromatic with cherry notes foremost, it avoids smelling like cough syrup thanks to the deft and careful application of sugar.

The palate finds both cherry and orange notes the most prominent; they work fairly well together as fruity companions, and the flavors are reasonably authentic, though they veer heavily into the candy-coated world. The finish is lingering and quite sweet, but surprisingly not unpleasant. While it’s hardly the pinnacle of sophistication, I could totally see this working in a cocktail, punch, or even a simple highball with a mixer.

60 proof.

B / $15 / smirnoff.com

Review: Humboldt Distillery Humboldt’s Finest Hemp Vodka

Humboldts Finest April2016

Humboldt’s finest? We’re talking about redwood trees, amirite people? OK then, we’re really talking about cannabis sativa, good old hemp seed, and here’s another entry into the burgeoning market of hemp-flavored (and THC-free, of course) vodka.

There’s no real production info here, except that the vodka includes natural flavors and, oddly, certified color (it is tinted just the barest shade of green).

Many a hemp vodka can be an overbearing, hoary experience, but Humboldt’s is very, very mild. The nose offers notes of lime, lemongrass, and a little white sugar, but is otherwise straightforward. The palate is again quite light, slightly sweet with gentle herbal notes, plus hints of banana, orange peel, chicory, and a lightly earthy, cinnamon-dusted finish. It’s all very innocuous, and not at all bad, though there’s nothing here that even remotely recalls “hemp” in any of its incarnations, should you be looking for that skunky funk to get your Friday night started.

But don’t let that stop you. Humboldt suggests using this spirit as a substitute for gin in your favorite cocktail. That’s a fine idea, but it’s so mild that I’d take it one step further and suggest trying it in place of any old vodka, too.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 / humboldtdistillery.com

Review: Smithworks American Made Vodka

smithworks

“From the heartland,” the bottle boldly proclaims. Water from Lake Fort Smith, grain (corn) from Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Triple distilled in Kansas, bottled in Fort Smith, Arkansas. And Blake Shelton is the brand’s spokesperson.

So yeah, that’s some heartland stuff right there.

I’m happy to report that the heartland acquits itself admirably with this production. The vodka is solid stuff.

The nose is clean, offering lightly medicinal notes and a modest charcoal undercurrent. While lightly sweet on the palate, Smithworks keeps the sugar in check and lets some other elements shine on the body, including florals and quite a bit of fruit: a light dusting of cherries, red apples, and a hint of rhubarb. The finish is clean, again a touch sweet but on the whole working well with those light fruit elements.

All told it’s a versatile vodka, and one you can feel proud of pouring into your punch on the Fourth of July, dad gummit!

A- / $16 / smithworksvodka.com

Review: Blue Ice Creme Brulee Vodka

Blue Ice Creme Brulee

Outside of its “G” line, Blue Ice has just one flavored vodka, and that flavor is… no, not lemon. Not citrus. Creme brulee. Or, as it is listed on the Blue Ice website: Creme burlee. Or, elsewhere, Creme burele.

That is an extremely weird choice for one’s sole flavor, but to be sure, “creme brulee” is shorthand for “vanilla.” (More “natural” flavors are relegated to the Blue Ice “G” line, which has a more organic reputation.) Anyway, if you think about an actual creme brulee while you’re sniffing a glass of Blue Ice Creme Brulee, you really do get a real custard sense in it. It’s not just straight vanilla, but sugary and eggy all at once, complete with that caramelized crust. So, on that note, well done, Blue Ice.

On the palate, sugar dominates, but the flavors continue the theme established by the nose. The more raw elements of the vodka battle with the heavier flavoring elements, but the finish positively pours on the sweetness, sticking to your mouth and, well, anything else that might come into contact with the vodka: This is some sticky, sticky stuff.

Sure, this is hardly a nuanced spirit, and outside of novelty cocktails Blue Ice Creme Brulee doesn’t have a whole lot of utility, but let’s be frank: Once in awhile, everyone’s mom comes to visit. And she’s gonna love it in her coffee.

Now let’s work on that spelling.

60 proof.

B- / $16 / blueicevodka.com

Review: Elation Hemp Flavored Vodka

elation vodka

Switzerland is the unlikely source for this vodka, triple distilled from wheat and rye and then flavored with hemp before being bottled. The company says it’s the “first established hemp flavored vodka (0% THC) to be sold throughout the United States,” but I’m not going to even begin to try to fact-check that. Elation admits that other hemp vodkas exist, but says its is different: “While other hemp vodkas use hemp seeds, Elation uses blossoms from the finest Swiss hemp to flavor the vodka.”

The nose certainly screams hemp, carefully riding that line between hops and skunk spray, between tobacco and salty licorice. The palate offers a touch of instant sweetness, but this is quickly chased away by the hemp notes that the nose provides. Slightly vegetal, slightly smoky, the finish reminds me of smoked kippers, iodine, and burning leaves.

It’s interesting enough to offer enough to at least merit a peek. Ultimately, I could take it or leave it — though it does offer some curious cocktailing possibilities.

80 proof.

B / $30 / elationvodka.com

Review: Purity Vodka

purity vodka 2

So a funny story about Purity Vodka. I was all set to review Purity in 2010, and then the sample bottle disappeared. My housekeeper stole it, a testament to how pretty the bottle is. I ended up firing her, and forgot all about the Purity review… until now, when at last a new bottle of Purity has appeared on my doorstep, at last ready to review. My current housekeeper doesn’t drink, so this bottle survived unscathed.

Purity hails from Sweden, where its claim to fame is being column distilled 34 times. Those numbers don’t mean a lot in column stills, which tend to be continuous, but you get the idea. Purity, made from a mash of organic winter wheat and malted barley, is supposed to be pure — as neutral as vodka can get. Bottles are numbered and identified by batch.

Purity certainly lives up to its promises. The nose is very slight, with gentle hospital notes touched lightly with sugar, marzipan, and a touch of herbs. The palate is very clean, sweeter by a hair than the nose would indicate, with notes of lemon peel and some macadamia nut notes. The finish stays on the ultralight track, adding some vanilla to the mix.

Final analysis: As vodka goes, it couldn’t be an easier sipper and works easily as a versatile mixing ingredient.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #87.

A- / $28 / purityvodka.com

Review: VDKA 6100 Vodka

Here’s the bullet points on VDKA 6100. It hails from New Zealand (the 6100 refers to the 6,100 miles from the U.S. (where the vodka was envisioned) to NZ, where it is made). It is triple distilled from a mash made not using potatoes, corn, or wheat but from whey — yes, whey, the by-product of milk production. Finally: Robert de Niro is an investor in the product, and “helped with the design, packaging, branding, and positioning of the product.”

The vodka is one of the lightest out there. The nose is lightly sweet, with just a mild touch of hospital character, but otherwise very clean and very neutral. The palate follows suit: Thin, almost watery at times, with very gentle notes of simple syrup, fresh cream, and a touch of lemongrass. Is the whey-cream connection all in my head? At times the vodka seems like it drinks a bit like melted vanilla ice cream.

The use of whey as a base for vodka has been getting a terrible rap in the press, and if you’re looking for a spirit with power and character, I can see why one would complain. This is vodka lite, with all the connotations that entails. For those looking for a truly neutral base spirit that can blend in with whatever mixers you throw at it, well, here it is.

80 proof. Aka VDKA6100.

B+ / $25 / vdka6100.com

Review: Stolichnaya Gluten Free Vodka

Stoli Gluten Free

At the risk of angering my gluten-free readership even further, I’m about to review another gluten-free beverage that’s arriving in the form of Stoli Gluten Free.

It’s becoming increasingly popular for manufacturers to claim that various liquor products are gluten free, but it’s commonly known that gluten does not survive the distillation process. By and large (so they say), all distilled spirits are gluten free, unless they are flavored with some kind of gluten-containing product.

The catch: That fact doesn’t actually matter. Per the TTB, you can’t put “gluten free” on your label unless the product was made from start to finish with gluten-free ingredients. Distill from wheat and you can’t claim the product is gluten-free… even if it actually is gluten-free due to the processing.

For Stolichnaya, that’s a problem, because its standard bottling is made from a mash of wheat and rye. Rather than reformulate the original product just to please a few anti-glutenites, it’s launched a whole new version of Stoli: Stolichnaya Gluten Free. Made from a mash of 88% corn and 12% buckwheat, it’s gluten-free right from the start.

Nosing Stoli GF doesn’t indicate anything out of the ordinary. It’s sharp and moderately medicinal, classically Old World in its aroma, with hints of black pepper and pine needles. On the palate, the vodka doesn’t depart much from the expected profile: Hospital notes first, followed by very mild sweetness, a hint of cracked grains, and a bit of a charcoal note on the back end. It’s a very neutral vodka without much in the way of secondary aromas or flavors, its quite crisp finish further ensuring than any additional flavor notes that did survive distillation and filtering are quickly whisked away.

The bottom line: Whether or not you buy in to the gluten-free craze, Stoli’s figured out how to make a “completely” gluten-free vodka that tastes just as good as the “real” stuff. Feel free to sub it in freely for any other top shelf vodka.

80 proof.

A- / $17 / stoli.com

Review: Bet Vodka

bet vodka

Bet, long E. Rhymes with “beet.” In fact, it sounds exactly like “beet.” And that is all because this new vodka is made with beets as its base.

Made in partnership with the distiller 45th Parallel, Bet Vodka is a Minnesota-born spirit that uses only locally grown sugar beets in its mash.

The results are perfectly fine, if not entirely earth-shaking. The nose starts off a bit musty, just hinting at the sweetness that a sugary base can provide. I catch a few gentle, winey notes here as well, unusual for a vodka.

On the palate things diverge considerably, with a rush of sugar hitting the tongue first, bringing along rapid-fire hits of marshmallow, cotton candy, and marzipan. The back end takes these flavors and offers them up in a gently scorched rendition, with more of a toasted marshmallow tone. Things are clean, though still lightly sweet, on the finish, after which a touch of charcoal emerges (and grows) as the primary elements of the vodka fade.

All told, Bet doesn’t strike a whole lot of new ground — except, of course, in the realm of creative pronunciation.

80 proof.

B / $35 / betvodka.com

Tasting and Testing: MashBox Club Spirits Samplers

mashbox

Like Flaviar and the Whisky Explorers Club, MashBox aims to expose you to spirits you wouldn’t normally get to try. The main difference with this booze-of-the-month club is that with MashBox you get a lot more than just whiskey (as we’ll see below). It’s a veritable tour of the entire spirits universe.

The deal is simple: $99 a year gets your four boxes of three 50ml samples. which works out to about $8 per dram. That’s about what a shot of Jack will cost you around these parts, so it’s not a bad deal.

MashBox’s focus is squarely on craft and unusual spirits (with a heavy focus on New York-based operations) — and some of the products included in the sample kits I’ve received I’m never encountered in the wild, or even heard of before this. There’s no need to scour the web for data, though. Each shipment comes with a set of cards offering some basic production information and tasting notes on each product you receive. And if you like something, you can buy a full bottle at a discounted price.

Here’s a look at nine of the samples from three recent MashBox shipments. These mini-reviews are in no particular order as the products of the various sample boxes we received got mixed up, but they should give you an idea of what to expect each quarter. While not every product is a home run, I’m a big fan of trying something off the beaten path once in a while. Give MashBox a try and see what you think!

Kings County Distillery Bourbon – Young bourbon from Brooklyn, NY. Heavily grainy, with chocolate malt overtones and tons of wood. It’s initially undercooked, as craft whiskey can often be, with a surplus of ginger and baking spice on the back end to help temper the heavy barrel influence. 90 proof. C

Barrell Whiskey Batch 2 – We’ve covered Barrell a few times, but batch 2 of its sherry-cask treated whiskey is a new one for us. Interesting butterscotch notes and red berries meld well with caramel and vanilla notes. A bit astringent, but that happens at 123.8 proof. B

Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye – Spicy, with rather intense mulled wine notes. Tastes like Christmas. See full review here. 65 proof. B+

Van Brunt Stillhouse Rye Whiskey – Van Brunt’s 9 month old rye is youthful and brash (see other Van Brunt reviews here), but its pungent nose finds a curious companion in a body that offers up notes of cloves, petrol, burnt bread, and a bit of burnt rubber, too. Intriguing, but extremely young. 84 proof. C+

Oak & Rye Wormwood – Grain-distilled spirit (corn- and rye-based whiskey) flavored with wormwood. In other words, it’s a unique spin on absinthe by way of a flavored whiskey. The nose is so hard to place — forest fires, rubber, and scorched herbs — but the palate is gentler, with a smoky sweetness that finds a strange complement in the form of lingering anise notes. One of the more bizarre spirits I’ve seen lately. 90 proof. B-

Maid of the Meadow – Vodka with herbs and honey from Denning’s Point Distillery in Beacon, New York. Quite good, and it delivers on exactly what the description promises. The honey is restrained and gentle, the herbs a dusting of cinnamon, sesame, and lemon. Tastes like it’s made for a toddy. 80 proof. A-

Glorious Gin – Breukelen Distilling offers this heavily floral gin, which includes rosemary, ginger, and grapefruit in the mix. It tops a somewhat earth-toned core with a good amount of fruit character and only a modest juniper slug. Interesting stuff and unexpected from the normally bombastic craft gin market. Try with a craft tonic. 90 proof. B+

Kas Krupnikas – A traditional Lithuanian honey spiced liqueur made in Mahopac, New York. Richer and much more honey-focused than Maid of the Meadow, but just as compelling in its own, special way. While Maid of the Meadow feels like an ingredient, Kas Krupnikas is a soothing sipper that works beautifully on its own. Very heavy honey — equal parts fruit and earth — dominates, with some hints of orange peel, cloves, and fresh gingerbread. A beautiful little surprise. 92 proof. A

Doc Herson’s Natural Spirits Green Absinthe – A South African madman makes absinthe in Brooklyn, people. What he’s come up with is a classic rendition of the spirit, with a sweet licorice and fennel focus that comes alive with sugar and water. It doesn’t need much doctoring, mind you, just a little kick to bring out its inner beauty. Lovely mint and cocoa powder notes emerge on the finish. 134 proof. B+

mashandgrape.com