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: Blood Oath Bourbon Whiskey Pact No. 1 2015

blood oath

There is a lot of flowery script on the label of the new Blood Oath Bourbon, but there is precious little information therein.

What do we know about this new bottling? It is sourced bourbon — and not only is the distillery unstated, the state in which it is produced is unstated. (The whiskey is ultimately bottled in Missouri and distributed by the company that makes Ezra Brooks.) Creator/scientist John E. Rempe isn’t the first guy to have this idea, but he says this bespoke bottling is a limited release that will “never be produced again.” Bload Oath Pact No. 2, if there is one, will be a different whiskey altogether.

Pact No. 1 is said to be a blend of three whiskeys: a 6 year old wheated bourbon, a 7 year high rye bourbon, and a 12 year old mystery bourbon. This is aged (at least in part) in barrels with a lighter, #3 char. Otherwise there’s no production information included.

It’s a very gentle whiskey on the nose — as lighter char bourbons often are — with simple vanilla, caramel, and sweet corn on the nose, plus a touch of baking spice to add nuance. On the palate, it is again surprisingly gentle and easygoing considering its proof level. More of those sugar-forward dessert components come to the fore, along with some raisin notes and heavier baking spices, including distinct gingerbread notes. The body is light and floral at times, not at all heavy or over-wooded, making for an easy sipper. The finish is slightly peppery and a bit drying, though the sweetness is sustained until the end.

Ultimately there is plenty to like here, but the mysterious origins and rather high price — which would be steep even for a whiskey that was entirely 12 years old — might understandably be a bit of a turnoff.

98.6 proof. 15,000 barrels made.

A- / $90 / bloodoathbourbon.com

Review: Elijah Craig Single Barrel 18 Years Old

elijah craig 18 2

Elijah Craig 18 Years Old was originally released in 1994 — but you probably haven’t noticed it on the shelves for the last three years, as the expression has been on “hiatus” due to a lack of available 18 year old bourbon barrels.

Now EC18 is finally back, and for my money, this is Elijah Craig drinking at just about the height of its charms. Get much older (see our 20, 21, and 23 year old EC reviews), and the wood begins to get in the way of what can be a delicate and effusive spirit.

Here we find Elijah sporting a lightly floral nose, honeysuckle mixed in with butterscotch and ample vanilla notes plus hints of barrel char. On the palate, things are firing on all cylinders. First a rush of sweetness, but there’s no sugar bomb here. Rather, that sugar takes a darker turn into molasses, dark cocoa powder, and a touch of bitter roots where that dark barrel char makes itself known. The finish is slight sweet relief, a torched, creamy creme brulee that offers a touch more of that floral note alongside an echo of chimney smoke — a balanced whiskey that melds fire and flowers into a cohesive whole.

90 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #4090, barreled on 6/16/97.

A- / $120 / heavenhill.com

Review: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon 2015 Edition

four roses 2015LESmallBatch_Front_White_FIN

With Jim Rutledge retiring from Four Roses and Brent Elliot succeeding him as master distiller, Rutledge has just overseen his last edition of the Four Roses Small Batch, his final release from the distillery.

The 2015 Limited Edition Small Batch is comprised of a 16-year-old Bourbon from Four Roses’ OBSK recipe, a 15-year-old OESK, a 14-year-old OESK, and an 11-year-old OBSV, making this a fairly old installment of the panoply of Small Batch releases.

The Four Roses 2015 Small Batch has a very exotic nose — sweeter than 4R usually comes across, with notes of cherry, floral honeysuckle, and eucalyptus. The body is heavily fruity, with ample vanilla-cherry character up front that leads to a big and syrupy vanilla, butterscotch, and chocolate character that washes over the palate as it heads to a lengthy and quite sweet finish that offers notes of apricot. For those who like their bourbon with plenty of sugar (but also plenty of heat), this Small Batch release will hit the spot perfectly.

I enjoy a sweet bourbon, but I have to say the 2015 goes a bit too far down that road, ultimately leaving little room for subtlety. It’s a fine sipper on its own, but in the pantheon of Four Roses’ Small Batch releases, it is need of some balance.

108.5 proof.

12,600 bottles produced (a further increase over 2014 — in 2011 they only made 3500 bottles).

B+ / $90 / fourroses.us

Review: Russell’s Reserve 1998 Kentucky Straight Bourbon

RR 1998 HiRes Email

Right on the heels of Master’s Keep comes Russell’s Reserve 1998, Wild Turkey’s rarest expression yet. Back in 1998, Jimmy and Eddie Russell laid down some “special occasion” casks — and only now are they getting around to actually bottling them, 17 years later.

These whiskies predate the Russell’s Reserve brand altogether, so it’s not really right to think of this as a line extension (though there is a natural familial resemblance between the 1998 and the Russell’s Reserve 10 Years Old bottling). What this is, really, is a very small batch expression of Wild Turkey bourbon from a single vintage distilled in the previous millennium.

From all angles, this is intense and powerful stuff. The nose is spicy and nutty — heavy vanilla-focused bourbon through and through — with some mentholated notes adding warmth. On the palate it’s an outright sugar bomb, loaded with baked apples, a double dose of vanilla-infused sugar cookies, some fresh ginger, and only on the back end, some barrel char influence. Hugely expressive and loaded with flavor from start to finish, I can understand if some actually find it to be too much of a good thing.

102.2 proof. 2,070 bottles produced.

A- / $250 / wildturkeybourbon.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Granite State Collection Head-to-Head

JD NH Single Barrel 2Headlines were made earlier this year when the largest ever single barrel purchase of Jack Daniel’s — 15 barrels’ worth — was completed. Big liquor store? Weathly billionaire? Not exactly. The purchase was made by none other than the state of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire is a “control” state, which means it operates its own liquor stores. As such, it has plenty of money to drop on wacky ideas like this — 15 whole barrels of JD Single Barrel Select.

The Granite State folks sent us samples from two of the 15 barrels so we could see what kind of goodies New Hampshirans (that’s what they’re called) now have in their backyard. Here’s a look at the duo.

Both are 94 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Granite State Collection Rick R-6 Barrel 15-1778 – Very fruity, not a term I often associate with JD, featuring minimal wood influence, some cherry, and some cinnamon on the nose. On the palate, the fruit comes through the strongest, but ample vanilla and barrel char still shine through. The finish is all super-ripe bananas — almost tropical at times and not at all like any JD you’re likely accustomed to. A-

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Granite State Collection Rick R-8 Barrel 15-1933 – Much more intense with alcohol and stronger wood char notes, a touch of that banana, plus burnt marshmallow, and supple vanilla notes. All in all, it’s classic Jack Daniel’s, with more of an alcoholic kick. Very good, but awfully familiar. B+

each $45 / liquorandwineoutlets.com

Review: Michter’s US-1 Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon 2015

Michter's 2015 Toasted Bourbon

Michter’s has developed a bit of a cult following in the bourbon world, and its Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon is definitely its most famous major release. This limited edition annual release is always in short supply, and it’s made by taking Michter’s US-1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon and finishing it in barrels that are seasoned for 18 months, which are toasted, not charred. There’s no age information on either the original barreling time or the finishing, but given that there’s no information on where this whiskey came from to begin with, it’s unlikely anyone really cares.

This release is one of Michter’s most intensely woody and pungent expressions. Never mind the “toast”: This is barrel char front and center, with a heavy earthiness and ample tobacco/smoke on the nose. That’s a rough and brutish way to start things off, but the body is more refined than you would think. Notes of cherry pits, charred herbs, and licorice hit up front, then a soothing fruit component wallows up behind. There’s a lingering barrel char character that really sticks with you — and it’s probably why people go so gaga over this bourbon: It tastes super-old, with the kind of intense wood influence that you usually only see with extremely well-aged stuff.

But what Michter’s Toasted Barrel doesn’t have is the maturity and nuance that is supposed to come along with very old bourbons. Instead, it comes across like a bit of a shortcut, which is kind of a bummer.

91.4 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #154/667.

B / $53 / michters.com

Tasting Lost Spirits Whiskey Experiments


Lost Spirits — the company that’s knee deep in ultra-accelerated spirits aging technology — has largely devoted its early experiments to one liquor category: Rum.

Why rum? It’s easier to age, with simpler ingredients and a more straightforward line from white spirit to old brown stuff.

Whiskey is a bit of a holy grail for Lost Spirits, as it’s a more lucrative market with larger appeal at the high end. (As you’ll recall, Lost Spirits’ reactor can age a product to the equivalent of 20 years of age — no more, and no less.) But it’s also been difficult to make, says CEO Bryan Davis, due to some incredibly geeky complications with the way certain bacteria interplay with the wood that makes up the barrel.

Well, Davis says that he’s on the path to figuring this out, and he sent me some whiskey samples from the reactor to see how things are progressing. On tap: Two bourbons (one 100 proof, one 118 proof) and a 100 proof rye. (To reiterate: These are not commercial products but just works-in-progress submitted for some early thoughts. All of them started off with new make spirit from a major Kentucky distillery, though Davis can’t say which.)

In short, Lost Spirits is well on the path, but there’s still work to be done. The overwhelming flavor of both of the bourbon experiments is smoke. Not barrel char, but campfire smoke, something that lands the experience closer to a peated Scotch than to any bourbon I’ve ever had. The body offers some floral elements and fruit underneath, with cherry notes enduring for a time — before the dense smoke elements take hold again. It still doesn’t quite compare to even very old bourbon — the near complete lack of sweetness is a key concern — indicating there’s still work to be done on the aging process.

Conversely, the rye is a much bigger success, showcasing classic rye baking spice notes, plenty of fruit, and a more restrained and gentle smoke character. Marshmallows, baked bread, and baked apples are blended together with just a bit of petrol and some of that forest fire smokiness to create a complex but balanced whole. Now 20 year old rye is hard to come by — I don’t know if I’ve ever had any at all — so comparisons with currently available products aren’t easy to make. But either way, this is a whiskey that I could drink right now, its various elements really firing together beautifully.

Review: 1792 Port Finish Bourbon

1792 Port Finish Bottle

1792 Sweet Wheat was the first in a line of limited editions of 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon, and now #2 is here: A Port cask-finished expression.

1792 Port Finish Bourbon spends 6 years in new oak, then 2 years in former Port casks for a total of 8 years of aging.

Regular readers know I’m a sucker for Port-finished spirits, and this is a fine example of how well bourbon and Port can pair. A nose of dense caramel and milk chocolate gets things going. On the tongue, the classic vanilla bourbon notes come forward first, then the dark fruit notes from the Port casks take over. Chewy raisin and dried cherry lead to baking spice notes that include gingerbread and cinnamon toast. The finish is lengthy, quite sweet, and just a bit gummy, echoing the chocolate notes up front.

Really fun stuff. I’d pick up multiple bottles — this isn’t going to be made again — at this price.

88.9 proof.

A / $40 / 1792bourbon.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century


Jack Daniel’s is making a second stab at Sinatra’s legendary love of JD with another ultra high-end bottling of its signature Tennessee Whiskey. If you thought Sinatra Select was ostentatious, wait’ll you get a load of Sinatra Century, which arrives at more than twice the price.

Sinatra Century — bottled in honor of Frank’s 100th birthday — is made from the same type of alligator-charred barrels as Sinatra Select but otherwise offers no particular production information (including, as usual, any age statement). What JD has done, however, is work with the Sinatra family to taste and select the barrels that went into this bottling.

Bottles are individually numbered and come in elaborate gift packaging. They are bottled at 100 proof, perhaps another nod to the Ol’ Blue Eyes’ centennial.

You have time to consider this purchase — Frank’s birthday will be December 12, 2015 — but in the meantime, let’s give it a thorough tasting and review.

Sinatra Century is immediately appealing from the moment the bottle is cracked open. The nose is heady, with heavy baking spice notes — highly unusual for JD — loads of cinnamon and nutmeg, plus brown butter, some barrel char influence, and ample vanilla. There’s a fair amount of alcoholic burn given the proof, but it’s manageable and actually quite engaging, working well with the grandiose nose.

On the palate, Sinatra Century keeps it going. Big butterscotch, cinnamon, and a healthy slug of Mexican chocolate lead the way. Some charcoal notes make an entry later on, but the finish runs to bittersweet cocoa, a slight cherry influence, and smoldering molasses left on the fire overnight.

The balance of flavors here is nearly perfect, bouncing from spice to chocolate to char and back again. The higher proof helps keep it alive on the tongue for ages, but it never feels particularly hot and doesn’t need water. Engaging from start to finish, I’m not afraid to say this is the best product JD has ever put into a bottle.

That said, it’s a $400 product (or more) — so it better be good. Damn good.

A / $400 (one liter) / jackdaniels.com