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: The Feathery Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

Feathery_btSpencerfield Spirit Co. makes some relatively well-known blended whiskies (at least in whisky nerd circles), Pig’s Nose and Sheep Dip. Now it’s back with a new blended malt (no grain whisky added, only various single malts): The Feathery.

The name is a reference to the first golf ball (golfing being sacred in Scotland), which were made of leather and stuffed with bird feathers. That doesn’t have a lot to do with what’s in the bottle as far as I can tell — The Feathery is a collection of Highland malts, all first-fill sherry cask matured. It’s got as much to do with feathers as it does with octopi.

Let’s try it all the same.

The nose is much bigger than I expected, with intense notes of walnut, almond, leather oil, and dark caramel. A touch of salt air is a nod toward this whisky’s Highland origins.

The body backs up the nose fairly closely, its heavily nutty character the most prominent element. Brooding sherry notes back up the core, offering a natural companion to all those almonds and walnuts. Notes of chocolate, burnt caramel, vanilla, and a bit of candied ginger add nuance and interesting counterpoints to the nutty core. The finish is modest, fading before it has outstayed its welcome.

All told, this is one of the best blended malts I’ve encountered all year, and any fan of malt whisky will do himself a service by tracking down a bottle.

80 proof.

A- / $55 / spencerfieldspirit.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Gordon & MacPhail Glenburgie 10 Years Old

glenburgieGlenburgie isn’t a name one encounters too often on this side of the world, but this Speyside distillery has been operating since 1824. An all new distillery was built in 2004, and Pernod Ricard acquired the operation in 2005.

The vast majority of Glenburgie ends up in Ballatine’s blended whisky, but Gordon & MacPhail bottles a small number of expressions, primarily this 10 year old, as single malts.

Glenburgie 10 is a soft and classic sherry barrel-aged expression of the Scottish Highlands, kicking things off with classic nose of honey and nougat notes, layered with a modest level of citrus and cinnamon spice. The body offers a chewy-sweet malt character foremost, with the fruit taking a back seat. It’s more pie crust than baked apples, with a greenish undercurrent. The finish offers some lightly medicinal elements, plus notes of cloves, coconut, and a touch of brine.

Definitively worth a try.

80 proof.

B+ / $55 / gordonandmacphail.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Hyde No. 1 Presidential Cask Single Malt Irish Whiskey 10 Years Old

hyde whiskey

A. Hardy is now importing this new Irish whiskey from Hibernia Distillers, which was established only last year. Hyde No. 1 (No. 2 and No. 3 are in the works) is a 10 year old single malt, aged in first-fill oak bourbon casks, then finished in first-fill oloroso sherry casks and non-chill filtered.

Those looking for sherry bombs may be disappointed. Hyde No. 1 features lots of sweetened cereal – huge, really – on the nose, with heather and some charcoal notes backing it up. On the palate, the whiskey really pumps up the granary notes, tempering things with touches of salted caramel and a bit of seaweed/iodine character – a bit of a surprise in an Irish whiskey.

The palate is sharp and quick to get to the finish, which offers just a touch of sulfur character amidst the essence of pure grain. That said, the entire experience is gentle enough that it doesn’t mar the overall encounter too terribly — though I have a lot of trouble justifying the price for such a simplistic whisky.

92 proof. 5,000 bottles produced.

B / $70 / irishwhiskey.com

Review: Metze’s Select Indiana Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Metze's Select

It’s not the end of an era, it’s the beginning of one. MGP Ingredients, the Indiana distillery where oh so much bourbon is produced and sold to other companies for bottling under their own label, is finally — for the first time — releasing its own whiskey.

Metze’s Select “2015 Medley” is a limited release of 6,000 numbered bottles. The company is being quite straightforward about what’s inside — which includes three different bourbons made over the years at MGP. Those bourbons are all rye-based and include 38% 2006 bourbon (21% rye), 3% 2006 bourbon (36% rye), and 59% 2008 bourbon (21% rye). For the math disinclined, that about half 7 year old bourbon, half 9 year old bourbon, all relatively high rye in composition.

Metze’s tastes familiar, probably because you’ve had it before in some form or another. Super sweet from the start, the nose is loaded with butterscotch notes, chocolate, and a touch of menthol. The palate takes that sweetness and runs with it, offering a big creme brulee character with a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg, brown butter, and some cherry on the finish. Slightly overproof, it’s got bite, but it’s wholly manageable without water — and the alcohol really just serves to boost the spicy component.

This is a fun bourbon, but its nearly singular focus on sweetness (with a minor in rye-driven baking spices) comes at the expense of nuance. Hard to complain too loudly, though. I can’t wait to see what MGP decides to pull out of its archives next.

93 proof.

A- / $75 / mgpingredients.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: The Macallan Highland Single Malt Edition No. 1

Macallan No. 1

Never shy about innovating, The Macallan Edition No. 1 is the first bottling in a new limited edition series from one of Scotland’s titans, with new expressions to be released annually.

Per the company: The inaugural bottle’s theme is co-creation, while showcasing our mastery of wood. Each year, a special selection of oak casks will be handpicked to create a new Edition, inspired by Macallan lovers from around the world and co-created with different partners. The proportions of various cask types were hand-selected by master whisky maker Bob Dalgarno. Edition No. 1 is matured in 8 unique European and American oak cask styles and sizes, each contributing their own distinct character.

Of those eight casks, seven are sherry and only one is American oak. No. 1 is a clear callback to the distillery’s heavily-sherried history, downright biting from the get-go with big citrus and spice notes. Punchy and lightly medicinal on the nose, those rich sherry notes kick things off in classic Macallan style. On the tongue, the whisky offers a big slug of orange oil and marmalade that winds its way into notes of toasted marshmallow, cloves, incense, and oily leather. The lengthy finish echoes more citrus, plus notes of sweet dates, raisins, and a touch of lumberyard.

All told, this is a knockout expression from Macallan, offered at a much lower price than I would think the company could fetch for such a flavorful monster that has such a storied history. Hell, I’d buy it.

96 proof.

A- / $90 / themacallan.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Anchor Distilling Christmas Spirit White Whiskey 2015

christmas spiritEvery year, the folks at Anchor Distilling take the prior year’s Anchor Christmas Ale, distill it, and turn it into an unaged white whiskey. Last year it was known as Christmas Spirit, as it is again for 2015.

The 2015 Christmas Spirit is classic white whiskey, cut with notes of seasonally appropriate herbs and pine needles. Moderately rubbery — a commonality found in most white whiskeys — the body showcases milk chocolate notes, more evergreen, and a touch of citrus at times. The finish is heavy with both rubber and petrol notes, and it goes out on a surprisingly heavy bitter note.

This 2015 bottling is definitely the most white whiskey-like of the three renditions of this spirit I’ve sampled to date (which invariably veer in the direction of gin). And that is not necessarily a compliment.

90 proof. Available in California only until December 31.

B- / $55 / anchordistilling.com

Review: Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof

clyde mays 110

The “Alabama Style” whiskey crew at Clyde May’s is back at it, turning out a Special Reserve edition of its original product. This is the first line extension for the brand, a corn/rye/malted barley whiskey that’s aged for up to six years in “mellowed” barrels “and finished non-cold filtered with a slight hint of apple, in the Alabama style.” (Dried apples are actually used in the barreling process to impart a slight fruit flavor. That sounds crazy, but stick with me here.)

Different lots of the Special Reserve will be bottled, each with slight barrel-driven variations; the bottle reviewed here does not contain any lot information, however.

Intensely reddish-ochre in color, the whiskey certainly looks the part of a smooth operator. The nose hits you upside the head with fruit, right from the start. Baked apples, for sure, but also cherries and some floral elements, alongside vanilla and caramel. (For kicks, try this side by side with Baker’s Bourbon.)

On the palate, Clyde May’s Special Reserve is a full-on fruit bomb, shotgunning the tongue with notes of clove-studded oranges, apple brown betty, and a sense at least of chopped almonds scattered atop toffee-covered brownies.

The finish pushes big cinnamon character, more apple fruit, and a lot of warmth. (This is 110 proof whiskey, after all.) I don’t think it particularly needs water, but adding a bit smooths out the rough edges and makes the experience a bit creamier, though less flavorful. Add water literally by the drop, and only one at a time.

Bottom line: Clyde May’s has taken what it learned from its freshman product and elevated it into a true American standout. Just slip a glass into the hand of any bourbon fanatic and see what they have to say. Now how do you like them apples?

A / $70 / clydemays.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

The Glenrothes Retrospective: 2001, 1994, 1991, 1985 and 25 Years Old Single Malt

vintage1985After our recent trip to The Glenrothes in Scotland, we were sent home with a collection of bottlings representing the company’s whisky production back to the early 1980s. Let’s take a walk into the past with a look back at five Glenrothes expressions, most of which are no longer in production but which you can still find somewhere on the market these days.

All whiskies are 86 proof. Prices are all based on 2015 sales.

The Glenrothes 2001 Single Malt – A fresh look at a whisky (an exuberant 11 years old, bottled in 2012) we’ve seen before. Nice malt backbone, and very, very gentle. An everyday dram at its heart, it nonetheless offers nuance and complexity in the form of coconut, red fruit, allspice, and light chocolate notes — but by and large it lets the grain-driven malt notes do the talking. A solid, easy-drinker. B+ / $53

The Glenrothes 1994 Single Malt – 11 years old, bottled in 2006. More citrus driven than the typical Glenrothes, here we see sherry having its way with the spirit, imbuing it with notes of orange peel, cloves, and some darker stuff underneath — licorice, burnt coconut, and some dark chocolate. Engaging, if considerably more fruit forward than the typical Glenrothes. B+ / $100

The Glenrothes 1991 Single Malt – 13 years old, bottled in 2005. Nicely sherried, with some more savory notes here — featuring roasted meats, dried herbs, and some charred wood. Solid fruit elements (lots of lemon) emerge alongside just a hint of sea spray. Dried fruits and a touch of incense emerge on the finish, making for a complex and nicely balanced dram. A- / $225

The Glenrothes 1985 Single Malt – 19 years old, bottled in 2005. Medicinal on the nose, which is a real surprise. This fades with time, however, leading to a quite delightful palate.  The body is nutty — again, a departure for Glenrothes — with secondary notes of leather, dried plum, and cloves. At first a bit closed off, this really grew on me over time. Worthwhile. A- / $200

The Glenrothes 25 Years Old Limited Release Single Malt – A rarity for Glenrothes — age statemented rather than vintage dated. That said, this was bottled in 2007, making it the equivalent of a “Glenrothes 1982,” if anyone cares to check my math. Again, a departure: The nose offers notes of almonds, beef jerky, camphor, and orange peel, all in a thick melange. On the tongue, the citrus is tempered by bready notes, more roasted nuts, and a long, slightly smoky, caramel-fueled finish. Once again, give this some time before you judge this dram. It needs more than a few minutes to properly open up and show all its charms. When it does, get ready for the fireworks. A- / $380

theglenrothes.com

Review: Jim Beam Apple

jim beam Apple Bottle_highWe almost missed this release a few months back, but finally turned up a bottle in our to-review queue. Jim Beam Apple probably doesn’t need a whole lot of introduction: It’s Jim Beam whiskey flavored with apple liqueur (specifically green apple liqueur) — though the fine print on the bottle reads the other way around. Technically this is apple liqueur flavored with Jim Beam bourbon.

Either way, it’s essentially a heavily flavored whiskey, and Beam has not been shy with the apple flavor. Intense, fruity, and extremely sweet, it’s tart apple pushed to the breaking point — particularly on the uncomplicated nose. Subtle whiskey notes — vanilla and a touch of baking spice — emerge over time, but those are really understated. By and large this could sub in for Apple Pucker or any other super-sweet apple liqueur, provided you don’t mind sipping on a brown appletini.

70 proof.

C / $15 / jimbeam.com