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: Sobieski Estate Single Rye Vodka

Sobieski Estate Single RyePolish, mid-shelf vodka brand Sobieski moves up shelf this month with the launch of an extension to the line: Sobieski Estate Single Rye Vodka, made from “100% Dankowski rye locally grown in Poland which is hand filled and hand crowned by distillers.”

The new vodka arrives in California now, with a national rollout coming in 2016.

This is solid, old world stuff. Astringent and medicinal but bracing and fresh on the nose, there’s no mistaking this vodka’s origins in eastern Europe. The palate has hospital-driven bite, but it offers a lush body of gentle citrus, slight brown sugar/caramel tinge, and even some florals (late in the game). There’s an echo of sweetness on the finish, but it’s far from overdone, offering a gentle way out of what can be a moderately powerful experience from the start.

Whether you need a solid sipper or martini vodka or just want a versatile mixer at a respectable price, Sobieski Single Rye is a fantastic option.

80 proof.

A- / $28 / vodkasobieski.com

Review: BiVi Sicilian Vodka

biviAh, Sicily: Renowned for its Italian food, mafia culture, and, of course, vodka.

Wait, vodka?

BiVi is made from Sicilian semolina wheat and bottled with local water and promoted by Sicilian actor Chazz Palminteri, so if you’re looking for a spirit that’s more Sicilian, you won’t likely find it. Still, it’s vodka, not grappa, so let’s see what our friends from off the Italian mainland can do.

On the nose it’s a traditional vodka, medicinal but tempered with some vanilla-focused sweetness. The body kicks things off with a lemon peel note before diving into a pile of fresh herbs. Strong hospital notes take over from there before, as with the nose, a sweeter character takes hold and cuts into the racy character with some notes of cocoa powder and caramel apples. The finish is clean, with an echo of the initial citrus notes.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 / iconicbrandsusa.com

Review: Grey Goose VX Vodka

grey goose vx

High-end vodka has been making a move to the even higher end of late, and one of the forerunners is this intriguing option from perennial top shelfer Grey Groose.

The idea with Grey Goose VX is to take Grey Goose and spike it with “a hint of precious Cognac.” (Remember, after all, this is a French product.) What’s a hint? 5%, according to the bottle, leaving 95% remaining for good old vodka.

Grey Goose VX is clear, which indicates that it’s filtered the way white rum and some tequila is to strip out any color.

What’s inside, though, is clearly not just vodka, as that touch of Cognac makes a significant difference to the body — much like adding a dash of bitters to a cocktail takes the flavor in a whole new direction.

On the nose, it doesn’t let on much (particularly if you let it rest in the glass). There’s just a slight nougat and plum character atop what is already a somewhat sweet vodka to begin with. Novices may not notice the difference at first.

On the palate is where Grey Goose VX begins to shine and break away from its lineage. Here you see significantly stronger notes of white flowers, sultanas, cotton candy, and that distinct, raisiny, sugar-cookie sweetness that comes from good Cognac. It’s a surprising effect given the tiny amount of Cognac in the blend, and it just goes to show again how impactful tiny changes in a spirit’s recipe can be. The finish is satisfying and slightly astringent — the vodka coming back to the fore — but significantly shortened by the addition of the sweeter brandy.

With all of that said, while VX makes for a fine little spirit, one has to marvel at the price. This is 5% Cognac, and 95% vodka! $80 can get you some very good stuff that is 100% Cognac and 0% vodka — not the top shelf but damn close to it. It would not be out of line to suggest that you could recreate this mix at home with a regular bottle of Grey Goose and a nice bottle of XO that you add to your Martini by the drop. See where that takes you.

80 proof.

A- / $80 / greygoose.com

Review: Svedka Vodka, Svedka 100, and Svedka Grapefuit Jalapeno

SVEDKA GrapefruitJalapeno Bottle

Sweden’s Svedka is one of the top global vodka brands, driven by an affordable price point and some amazingly successful marketing. 5x distilled from Swedish winter wheat, it’s widely available to the point of ubiquity. Let’s look at three of the company’s expressions, including a couple of new monsters.

Svedka Vodka – This is the standard Svedka bottling — presumably the one that that robot lady likes so much. The nose melds marshmallow notes with hospital overtones, but ultimately it’s the sweeter notes that carry the spirit. The palate is quite simplified, with a modest sugar component and just a wisp of astringency that attempts to provide some balance. It never quite gets there, though, leaving this best suited as a mixer. 80 proof. B- / $14

Svedka 100 Vodka – This is the 100 proof version of Svedka, but otherwise unflavored and made the same way. The nose is strikingly similar — offering that same mix of sweetness and medicinal character. Where things diverge is on the tongue, with Svedka 100 building up to a rather pungent and punchy character that is, primarily, driven by its alcohol content. This has the welcome side effect of tempering the sugar in the vodka and giving the spirit some much needed gravitas. A considerable improvement and only a buck more expensive. B+ / $15

Svedka Grapefruit Jalapeno Vodka – Svedka makes 14 varieties of vodka, including 12 flavors. This new one is arguably the strangest, unless Swedes are munching jalapenos and swilling Squirt left and right without my knowledge. This flavored expression is all fruit on the nose — but more grapefruit candy than sour grapefruit juice. On the tongue it’s more of the same — remarkably sweet and sugary, offering citrus but nothing that’s particularly grapefruit focused. But what about that jalapeno, Drinkhacker? Well, the finish offers a little but distinct burn, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. That said, I couldn’t tell you whether it came from a pepper or a vat of mysteriously spicy chemicals, and you don’t care anyway. 70 proof. C- / $12


Review: RedTerra Vodka

redterra vodkaQuick: What’s a spirit made from agave? Tequila? Yes. Mezcal? Yes. Vodka? Yes!

RedTerra is an agave-based vodka, which is made especially discordant due to the heavy Russian imagery — red, black, and an eagle — used on the bottle label. But RedTerra starts with 100% real blue agave harvested in the Jalisco Highlands. It’s then traditionally (for vodka, anyway) column distilled and bottled in Portland, Oregon. (The reason it comes out as vodka and not tequila is largely the proof to which the liquid is distilled; it’s the same reason you can turn rye or wheat into either vodka or whiskey.)

The traces of agave in the finished product are fleeting, but they are there: On the nose this comes across with modest but spicy herbal overtones — a bit of eucalyptus and cayenne, then a rush of ethyl alcohol heat. On the palate, it’s gently sweet, showing a little brown sugar at first, then some more herbal hints as the body evolves on the tongue. This ends up showing itself as a dusting of nutmeg and some brown butter. Again, a hint of cayenne heat on the back — and a finish that definitely recalls the vodka’s agave origins.

If nothing else, it’s different — and accessible to both the casual vodka drinker and the tequila fan looking for something that pairs a little better with vermouth.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 / redterravodka.com

Review: Virus Vodka

virus vodkaIf nothing else, give Virus Vodka the award for packaging of the year. An Erlenmeyer flask? Genius, even if its footprint does take up more than its fair share of shelf space.

Virus is bottled in North Charleston, South Carolina, but aside from a goofy story about ancient vampire/zombie/werewolf viruses, there’s not really any information available on how it’s made. Six-times distilled, they say, from what? Who knows. (Presumably that means grain neutral spirits are the beginnings of the spirit, but that’s just an assumption.)

The vodka has a simple, basic structure. The nose: Sweet, with marshmallow and vanilla notes and a touch of ethyl alcohol underpinning. The body is equally sweet, just this side of “sugary,” with notes of over-ripe banana, coconut, and vanilla ice cream. The finish is, as expected, on the sweet side, but it fades quickly and relatively cleanly.

Ultimately, it’s fine as a mixer. Not a contender for straight sipping. And doesn’t taste like zombies.

80 proof.

B / $20 / virusvodka.com

Review: Skyy Barcraft – White Sangria, Margarita Lime, and Watermelon Fresca

skyy stuff

“It’s time to hack the cocktail!” Now that’s a slogan I can get behind.

Unfortunately, Skyy Barcraft — essentially lower-proof flavored vodka designed to be mixed with your favorite mixer (soda, ginger, what-have-you) and consumed on the rocks — isn’t really hacking anything. Unless you consider water and those inimitable “natural flavors” to be a hack. Meh.

Each of the three expressions is 60 proof. All were tasted with a splash of club soda. (Skyy suggests a 2:1 mix of soda to spirit, which I don’t recommend at all.)

Skyy Barcraft White Sangria – Fresh, with lots of peach overtones, followed by citrus. Doesn’t exactly scream sangria — as there’s no wine element on the palate to speak of — but it does come off as a capable rendition of a lower-cal peach vodka. B

Skyy Barcraft Margarita Lime – Makes for an ugly margarita. Starts off with piney, evergreen notes, then segues into hospital overtones. The finish is drying and medicinal, not at all like any margarita I’ve ever had (possibly because you make a margarita with tequila, not vodka). D-

Skyy Barcraft Watermelon Fresca – About what you’re expecting — Jolly Ranchers dipped into vodka for a slightly astringent, slightly candied complexion. Some bitter notes emerge on the finish, likely driven by the vodka. Relatively harmless, but unless you’ve got a serious thing for watermelon, it’s probably not going to be your go-to beverage. C

each $x / campariamerica.com

Review: Oak by Absolut

absolut oak by absolutTo quote Tom Cruise in Risky Business, sometimes you gotta say, What the fuck?

How big is whiskey? So big that the vodka guys are trying to muscle in on the business.

Oak by Absolut is Absolut vodka rested in oak barrels. Or, more accurately, it is “oak infused vodka, vodka, [and] vodka rested in barrels,” per the label. What any of that means I don’t really know. The mechanics of the oak infusion aren’t disclosed, nor is any information about the type of barrels or the length of time the vodka spends in them. Was the vodka rested at distillation proof or at Absolut’s standard 80 proof? I just don’t know.

The end product looks and tastes exactly as you think it will. As dark as any whiskey (well, almost any whiskey), it certainly looks the part. On the nose it’s tough to parse — notes of vanilla are at the forefront, then cinnamon, raspberry, root beer soda, and marshmallows. It doesn’t really smell like whiskey… but it doesn’t smell like anything else either. A very young brandy? Some kind of flavored Irish whiskey? It’s a chameleon.

The palate pushes on with abandon — sweet vanilla custard, a modest lashing of lumber, and some cherry notes hit first. The main event is a distinct A&W Root Beer character — not a dense amaro bitterness, but a highly sweetened version of the stuff that leaves a hint of rootiness behind for the finish. Here things slowly fade away, offering some notes of prune juice and brown sugar amidst the lingering root beer character.

What’s surprising about Oak by Absolut — besides the fact that it exists at all — is how harmless it is. Those expecting a rank lumber bomb — which often happens if you put rack vodka in a wood barrel — won’t find it here. Whatever Absolut has done to doctor this oddity — and that must be significant — it’s been able to avoid turning it into the disgusting monster you were expecting it to be. At the same time, there’s really no reason, absolutely no reason at all, for it to exist. No whiskey fan in their right mind would pick this even over a $12 bottle of bourbon, and no vodka drinker would ever set foot near it. So why does this exist? As a gateway to whiskey (which Absolut doesn’t make)? Someone lost a bet? You got me.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch B-14.01 (or B-19.01… bad handwriting).

B- / $25 / absolut.com

Review: Voli Vodka

voli vodkaMade in Cognac, France, this vodka is crafted from French wheat, 5x distilled, blended with local water, and endorsed by Pitbull.

Voli (aka Voli Black) has a hyper-modern profile from start to finish. On the nose, it offers substantial sweetness, with caramel notes and a bit of citrus. The body is as sweet as you would expect, offering overtones of marshmallow, sweetened coconut, and vanilla. There’s none of the citrus hinted at from the nose on the palate, but the finish wraps things up with some baking spice and more brown sugar.

Did I mention the sweetness? Just checking.

80 proof.

B- / $20 / volivodka.com