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: Benromach 10 Years Old

benromach-10-year-oldWe’ve written a lot about the limited edition expressions of Speyside’s Benromach, but the expression you’re most likely to encounter is this entry level bottling, which is fairly easy to find.

Benromach is part of the Gordon & MacPhail empire, a very small operation in the north of Speyside that is unique for using a small amount of peated malt in its mash. Otherwise this 10 year old is a traditional blend of 80% bourbon casks, 20% sherry casks. The final blend is finished for a year in first-fill oloroso sherry barrels.

Benromach 10 is a gentle dram, surprisingly balanced for a whisky just a decade in cask. The nose offers ample notes of roasted grains, sweet sugar cane, and wisps of smoke. On the palate, the spirit is far more enveloping than this simple introduction might indicate, offering notes of fresh apple, banana, sugary cereal, honeycomb, and lavender. The smoke character is somewhat stronger here, leading the whisky to a powerful, almost pungent finish. A few petrol notes add a lightly industrial element to the mix — think the sweat and tears of industry, not bulk chemicals, that is.

86 proof.

B+ / $55 / benromach.com

Review: Chivas Regal 18 Years Old Ultimate Cask Collection First Fill American Oak Finish

Chivas_closeup_3-4 Etiquette_Q

That’s a bit of a mouthful for a blended Scotch, but hear them out: With the Ultimate Cask Collection, the venerable Chivas Regal is launching a series of limited edition whiskies that “reinterpret the brand’s celebrated Chivas 18 expression.”

Chivas 18, a storied blend stuffed with single malts from across the island, is well-worn ground. What could possibly be done to reinvent this sweet, grainy, well-honeyed old guard blend?

Let’s start with a barrel finish: For this first of three editions of the Ultimate Cask Collection (the next two will arrive in 18 month intervals), the whisky is rested in first fill American Oak casks (though no length of time is specified). Second is the proof. Chivas calls it “special strength.” You may call it 96 proof (compare to Chivas 18 at a standard 80 proof). Naturally, this will be available only at travel retail.

Looking at these two whiskies side by side, a close familiar resemblance is palpable. If you enjoy Chivas in any form, the Chivas UCCFFAOF should be up your alley. The nose is richer and more powerful than the standard bottling, offering more powerful toffee, caramel, and pure vanilla notes. It promises depth, and the body follows through, building on the elements in the nose with notes of malted chocolate balls, chocolate oranges, burnt marshmallow, and other dessert-like notes. Some more classic fruit character emerges with time — baked apple, a touch of banana — but the sweeter notes remain the focus. Thankfully, the Ultimate bottling keeps the sugar in check, and it never becomes cloying. Rather, the whisky engages from start to finish with a lush and enveloping richness that keeps itself balanced instead of blown out.


96 proof.

A- / $126 (1 liter) / chivas.com

Review: Glasgow Distillery Co. Prometheus 26 Years Old

promehteusGlasgow Distillery Co. is the producer of Makar Gin, but it also put together this one-off single malt, essentially an independent bottling of a 26 year old whisky sourced from a mystery distillery in Speyside. Oddly, it’s a peated Speyside (and one source on GDC’s website says it’s 27 years old, not 26), so it’s already a bit eyebrow-raising.

I had the tiniest of samples of this rarity, which offers a classic honey/citrus Speyside nose, tempered with a lacing of peat smoke. The peat is extremely light-handed, and peat freaks need not apply. It’s more akin to a fire burning in the chimney next door — just enough to whet your appetite for a winter warmer.

The palate is well balanced and firing just right, with fresh apples, flamed orange peel, spicy chutney, and a touch of white pepper. Just the lightest touch of smoke comes along on the back end — think cedar branches or other evergreen needles aflame — before whisking away with a torched brown sugar note.

Nice stuff.

94 proof.

A- / $930 / glasgowdistillery.com

Review: Laphroaig Cairdeas 200th Anniversary Edition 2015

Laphroaig_Cairdeas_October 2015

This year’s limited edition Cairdeas bottling from Laphroaig commemorates the distillery’s 200th anniversary. This year, the distillery eschews avant garde wood finishes and goes with a decidedly traditional approach: “The 2015 is produced from our finest malting floor’s malt, distilled using only the smaller stills, and fully matured in our famous No. 1 warehouse, right by the sea. Cairdeas 2015 is John Campbell’s interpretation of how Laphroaig would have been produced at the distillery 200 years ago.”

That’s kind of a neat idea, but it turns out Laphroaig 200 years ago tastes a lot like Laphroaig today. (This makes sense, as consistency is often the avowed goal of any master distiller.)

Cairdeas 2015 offers a heady nose of gentle fruit and sweet peat, mixed together beautifully, with notes of lively wood fires and barbecued meats. The body drinks easy — though it’s bottled at over 100 proof — and is initially heavy with fruits — apples, clementines, and some banana. As the finish arrives, some notes of spiced nuts come along — almost offering a Christmas-like character. The denouement features drying notes of ash and tar — nothing surprising for Laphroaig, but perhaps a bit heavy on an otherwise fruit-heavy whisky.

Nice stuff on the whole, and totally in line with the house style. Laphroaig fans should grab it while they can.

103 proof.

A- / $75 / laphroaig.com

Review: Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 and This Is Not a Luxury Whisky

Flaming Heart_pack shotCompass Box is probably the most exciting whisky blender in Scotland right now, and these two new limited releases, if nothing else, show just how avant garde the company can be.

Let’s take a dip into the blending pool, shall we?

Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 Limited Edition – Flaming Heart is a semi-regular blend, released every few years, which takes predominantly Islay and Highland malts and mingles them together in a variety of wood types (including sherry casks). Last made in 2012, this edition really raises the bar. Sultry smoke, laden with iodine and salt spray, kicks things off — with a particularly old school, medicinal character on the nose. On the palate, gentle sweetness — think older Laphroaig — tempers the beast, pumping in a wild collection of flavors: orange candies, rose petals, nougat, marzipan, and some gingerbread/baking spice notes on the back end. There’s just a lovely balance of flavors here, that floral character the most enchanting (and enduring) part of the dram. Incredibly drinkable from start to finish, this is one that both peat freaks and fans of less smoky whiskies can thoroughly enjoy. 97.8 proof. A / $130

This is not a luxury Whisky_pack shotCompass Box This Is Not a Luxury Whisky – Compass Box CEO John Glaser actually got in trouble with the law when this whisky was first unveiled in Britain. An unorthodox gentleman through and through (you need only consider the name of the spirit, inspired by Magritte, to see that), Glaser published in explicit detail on the back of the bottle the full details of the four whiskies that make up this spirit: 79% Glen Ord (first fill sherry single malt) 19YO, 10.1% Strathclyde (grain) 40YO, 6.9% Girvan (grain) 40YO, and 4% Caol Ila (refill bourbon single malt) 30YO. The problem? Scottish law only lets you write about the youngest whisky, not anything older. Whoops. Labels are being redone, but meanwhile TINALW is getting out there, including this sample to us. Results are scattered. The nose has a deep graininess, with notes of light barbecue smoke, mushroom, and forest floor. On the palate, the spirit is incredibly complex, with initial notes of evergreen needles, mushroom, and tar — but also sweetened grains and soft heather. As it develops on the tongue, the sweetness becomes more intense, developing notes of coconut, banana, marzipan, and baked peaches. Following that comes more smoke — think wet wood trying to ignite, and a rather intense and funky canned vegetable character that really takes a wild departure and ultimately saps the life out of the spirit. At first, TINALW is an exotic but quirky little dram that’s fun to tinker with. By the end, I was ready for something else to liven up the party. 106.2 proof. B / $185

Both on sale November 12.


Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #9 – Deanston 1997, Ben Nevis 1996, Glen Keith 1996, Glen Garioch 1995, Allt-A-Bhainne 1995, Cambus 1988


It’s another outturn from indie bottlers The Exclusive Malts, with a series of eight single cask releases from a wide range of distilleries. Today we look at six of them. So, without further ado, let’s get on to the tasting!

The Exclusive Malts Deanston 1997 17 Years Old – A “midlands” distillery near Glasgow, Deanston doesn’t often get much notice, but this vanilla-heavy number is a solid sipper. It’s a low-key malt with ample roasted grain notes, a touch of citrus peel, and some oily leather/furniture polish notes on the back end — but the sweet vanilla character, tempered with some walnut notes, tends to take over the whole affair from beginning to end. 104.6 proof. B+ / $140

The Exclusive Malts Ben Nevis 1996 17 Years Old – Highland malt, matured completely in a refill sherry cask. Here you’ll find more red fruits than citrus on the nose — almost strawberry at times, which is an exotic surprise, with a touch of lemon mixed in. There’s lots going on on the body — fresh mixed fruits, cinnamon, toffee notes, a bit of well toasted bread. Some coconut emerges on the finish, giving this a tropical touch. Lots of fun and highly worthwhile. 102.4 proof. A / $140

The Exclusive Malts Glen Keith 1996 19 Years Old – Speyside’s Glen Keith was shuttered from the late ’90s to 2013, when it reopened to make malt exclusively for blending. This is some of the last stock from that prior production run and a final chance to try Glen Keith as a single malt. It’s fairly traditional on the nose, with sizable cereal, some apple, and moderate wood influence. On the palate, it drinks on the hot side, with sweetened grains — think breakfast cereal — heavy on the tongue. Ultimately it’s a bit simplistic, particularly for a whisky of this age, though it’s completely serviceable. 100.2 proof. B / $155

The Exclusive Malts Glen Garioch 1995 19 Years Old – This is Highland malt aged in a rum cask from Guyana, a rarity you don’t often see in Scotch. Racy and spicy on the nose, the initial impression is one of a heavily sherried whisky, loaded with citrus and laced with cloves. The body is highly spiced, almost fiery at times, with tropical notes, rounded malt, and a bit of chocolate. Straightforward, a little hot thanks to the higher-than-expected proof, but a joy from start to finish. Wish I had more to tinker with. 112.6 proof. A- / $150

The Exclusive Malts Allt-A-Bhainne 1993 22 Years Old – This Speyside distillery is primarily used to make malts for Chivas blends, and it almost never shows up as a single malt. This well-aged number is the lightest shade of gold, with floral and grain-heavy notes up front, plus hints of baking spice and burnt sugar. Touches of petrol emerge with time. On the palate the whisky is initially sweet and innocuous, but some less savory components quickly come around — notes of coal, burnt paper, gravel, and ash. The finish is a bit rubbery, and short. Ultimately lackluster. 101.4 proof. B- / $160

The Exclusive Malts Cambus Single Grain 1988 26 Years Old – Cambus was a Lowlands grain whisky distillery that was shuttered in 1993. This is a darkish whisky, exotic on the nose with tropical fruits, irises, ripe banana, and coconut notes. On the palate, it’s intensely sweet — with amaretto notes and more ripe banana before venturing toward notes of watermelon, cherry, and rhubarb all mixed together. The finish is exceptionally sweet, almost cloying. All in all, this is a somewhat bizarre whisky that nonetheless merits consideration because it is so very unique. Not sure it’s a daily dram, however. 96.2 proof. B / $180


Review: The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve (2015)

TGL_Founders Reserve Bottle & PackBack in 2010, Glenlivet released its Founder’s Reserve expression — an extremely rare, wooden-crated, nearly $400 bottle of some of the best malt whisky I’ve ever had.

In 2015, Glenlivet is also releasing Founder’s Reserve. Which is a completely different thing. Completely.

The new Founder’s Reserve is an entry-level whisky, a no-age-statement expression of this single malt that will be far more accessible than the 1800 bottles of the 2010 bottling were. Barreled in first-fill and refill bourbon casks, it is a well-crafted but inoffensive single malt.

The nose here offers fresh-cut grains, some vanilla, a bit of citrus fruit, and a touch of ground white pepper. It’s a nice little mix… a kind of EveryMalt to get things going as your first dram after work. The body is extremely soft. Its got a very light wood influence, some nuttiness, a touch of that pepper, and lots and lots of roasted grains. Just a hint of brown sugar and a dash of banana and apple fruit give it some nuance, but on the whole the barley is what shines through the brightest. Watch for some cocoa powder notes on the very back end.

On a very young spirit, those granary notes can be overwhelming and brutish, but here Glenlivet tempers the entire experience to the point where the cereal notes fold themselves into a rounded and pleasing whole that would be at home alongside any well-made blend. Take that as you like.

80 proof.

B+ / $45 / theglenlivet.com

Review: Glenfiddich 14 Years Old Bourbon Barrel Reserve

glenfiddich 14Welcome to the latest addition to the Glenfiddich permanent lineup. Matured exclusively in bourbon casks for 14 years, it is finished in heavy charred new American oak barrels (finishing time unstated).

No question, this is classic, unsherried Glenfiddich through and through. Glen-fiddie loves to play with new oak here and there, and it does quite a number on this whisky, imbuing the nose with notes of ripe cherries, big vanilla caramels, and lots of scorched-wood barrel char influence.

Fans of American whiskey styles will find plenty to like here, as the Western flavors play nicely with the heady notes of malty grains, some toffee, and a bit more candied fruit. The finish has a touch of an incense character to it, with touches of twine.

All told: A classic, bourbon-barrel-heavy rendition of one of Speyside’s most classic single malts.

86 proof.

B+ / $50 / glenfiddich.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Royal Salute The Eternal Reserve Blended Whisky

Royal Salute_TER_BottleCartonWhite

Royal Salute is one of those curious blended whiskies that everyone seems to know about, but no one ever seems to drink. I’ve oddly never sampled a dram from the porcelain (not glass!) flagon, which calls the Strathisla distillery its home.

Beyond the decanter, all expressions of Royal Salute have a gimmick, and a pretty good one: Even though most Royal Salute expressions don’t carry an age statement, no spirit in any Royal Salute bottling is less than 21 years of age. That’s right: Royal Salute 21 is the entry level whisky.

This new release, Royal Salute The Eternal Reserve, is actually the second whisky up the ladder. Here’s what’s inside:

Royal Salute has selected rare and precious whiskies with an exceptionally long finish to blend and marry together in 88 casks to form the inaugural batch. Using a unique process called Circular Blending, Royal Salute has committed to including this original blend in each subsequent The Eternal Reserve release for decades to come.

Each time a new batch is unveiled, half of the blend will be re-casked in the Royal Salute Vault to conserve the precious liquid created in 2015. Thus, the original blend is forever preserved by this perpetual re-circulation – creating a smooth, voluptuous whisky that justifies its original name: uisge beatha (the water of life).

So, for those doing the math, this is going to be a solera release, and this is the first edition. From here on out, every Eternal Reserve bottling (which the company says should be an annual release) will have a little bit of this 2015 release in it… just less and less each year.

So, let’s give the inaugural bottling of The Eternal Reserve a spin, shall we?

Malty, classic blended Scotch notes feature on the nose, plus notes of roasted nuts, a bit of citrus, some mushroom, and some wood influence. On the tongue, more of the same, backed up with a bit of coconut, some graham cracker, and notes of canned pears and baked apples. The finish echoes a bit of that mushroom, impressively lingering with an almost musky, slightly smoky character. All in all, it adds a little nuance to an otherwise well-crafted and enjoyable spirit.

80 proof.

A- / $180 / royalsalute.com