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: 2013 Hahn SLH 2013 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

hahnLooking for big quality in American wine at a really attractive price? Check out Hahn’s SLH sub-label, a pair of wines sourced from estate grapes in the Santa Lucia Highlands.


These both represent a bit of a premium over the standard Hahn bottlings, but as you’ll see, they’re worth it.

2013 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highands – Dusky at first, with blackberry notes and tea leaf. On the palate, a bit sweeter than expected, with black pepper and a touch of ruby port character, but a finish that plays beautifully to the blackberry and dark raspberry notes, with a dusting of brown sugar on top. Incredibly easy-drinking, maybe too much so. A- / $18

2013 Hahn SLH Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands – A restrained expression of California chardonnay, offering a nose that is front-loaded with fruit — apples and figs, oddly enough — before veering into more traditional lines with a body that offers moderate and creamy buttery vanilla notes. A measured wine, it keeps things balanced between the fresh fruit and sweeter notes, with a dusting of nutmeg on the finish. A- / $20


Test-Driving Thanksgiving Wines from Lodi

Old Vine Zinfandel, Wegat Vineyard, Lodi AVA. Photography by Randy Caparoso.

There’s no more American holiday than Thanksgiving (well, except one, but that’s a beer-and-whiskey day) and if you’re ever looking for an excuse to try an American wine, this is it. Not just for nostalgia; many American heritage varietals pair beautifully with traditional Thanksgiving dishes. Fun fact: More wine is consumed in the U.S. on Thanksgiving than any other day of the year.

Our friends in Lodi, California recently sent a selection of local wines — including some unusual, “outside the box” varietals — designed to pair with hearty Thanksgiving meals. While I didn’t make the recipes they suggested (who has 10 pounds of short ribs handy on a Wednesday night?), you can check them all out for yourself here.

Here are some thoughts on each of the wines tasted during this live event.

2014 Acquiesce Viognier – Not at all your father’s (mother’s?) viognier. The typical peach/apricot notes are dialed way back and some uncharacteristic mushroom, slate, and dried herb notes come to the fore. This works far better with food than it does standing alone, the funkier, earthy elements helping to stand up well as part of a bigger meal. B- / $23

2013 m2 Wines Alicante Bouchet – Sweet and spicy, you could be easily forgiven for assuming this is Zinfandel. Bright, crushed strawberry and cherry notes mingle with cinnamon, some nutmeg, and a bit of tobacco on the finish. The sweetness rises up again as the wine fades out, though, a bit cloying for an otherwise highly drinkable red. B / $26

2013 Mettler Family Vineyards Petite Sirah – A heavy wine, dense with prunes, dark chocolate, leather, and mushroom. A little of this goes a long way, the wine’s intensity taking it to a place of dusky, leathery tannins as it evolves in the glass. Challenging, but not without some charm. B- / $26

2014 Michael David Winery Symphony – 100% Symphony grapes go into this lightly sweetened wine that lands somewhere between a chardonnay and a muscat. Lots of honey, applesauce, and citrus notes fire atop a lacing of sugar — though note it is far from a Sauternes-like blowout. You could serve this in lieu of, say, a Riesling if you were so inclined, but it is easily a solid companion for a fruit-heavy dessert. B+ / $15

Review: Available 2013 Red Blend and 2014 Pinot Grigio

Available 2013 Red Blend Bottle ShotNapa-based Taken Wine Co. imports these wines from Italy — and I have to say, “Available” is one of the worst brand names I’ve come across for any wine, much less an import.

These two wines both hail from Puglia, “the heel” of Italy. Thoughts follow.

2014 Available Pinot Grigio Puglia IGT – Somewhat bland for Pinot Grigio, there’s a mushroom quality to the wine that dulls the impact of the fruit. Otherwise, relatively traditional but simple tropical notes mingle with some mixed citrus — with grapefruit particularly notable here. A slight floral edge hits the finish. B- / $13

2013 Available Red Blend Puglia IGT – A blend of mystery grapes, this wine initially evokes vegetal, leathery notes on the nose, but in the glass this opens up a bit, and the fruit at its core makes for an interesting companion to the greener characters that are more upfront. What emerges is surprisingly balanced wine that offers sweet and savory components, with a playfully bitter finish. A pleasant surprise. B+ / $13


Review of Soave: 2013 Fattori and 2014 Rocca Sveva

Fattori Motto PianePutting the unavoidable Santa Margarita aside, arguably the most popular white wine in Italy is Soave, which is produced near the city of Verona in the Veneto region. 70 percent of any Soave wine must be vinified from the Garganega grape. The remainder may be Verdicchio (aka Trebbiano di Soave), and a rare few other local varieties. Contrary to popular belief, Trebbiano Toscano is now illegal to use for blending in Soave.

Thanksgiving is a good opportunity to break out a brisk white, at least to start off the day, and both of the Soave wines reviewed below are worthwhile endeavors to invest in next week.

2013 Fattori Motto Piane Soave DOC – 100% Garganega, dried for 40 days. Clean and moderately acidic, with lots of mango in it, there’s a slight, candylike bite on the palate that leads to a lightly sweet finish. Playful and fresh, with just a touch of sugar on the back. A- / $20

2014 Rocca Sveva Soave Classico DOC – 100% Garganega. Lots of melon and tropical notes on this both fruity and acidic wine. Some mineral notes add nuance, with a finish that offers bright pineapple and subtle orange blossom notes. Highly drinkable. A- / $15

Review: NV Honeyvine White Wine with Natural Honey

HoneyvineFirst off, know that Honeyvine — which blends honey with unstated, nonvintage white wine — is not nearly as bad as you expect it to be. In fact, it’s quite refreshing, a summery white with a touch of sweetness, not unlike a milder orange muscat or even some riesling.

The honey is present both on the body and the nose, with citrus overtones and some lemon/lime character, too. To be sure, it’s a sweet operator and not something you want to serve at dinner, but it works as a cocktail base — think sangria or spritzers — or on its own, served very cold (or even on the rocks).

Given the problems common with most modern honey-based wines or meads, it’s nice to finally see something that uses honey but gives it some much needed balance.

B / $13 / thewinebar.com

Review: 2012 Galerie pleinair and latro Cabernet Sauvignon

galerieLaura Diaz Munoz creates these two California cabernets — wildly different, yet next door neighbors — at Galerie, where the wines are constructed to evoke France’s Loire Valley. (Three white wines, not reviewed here, are also produced.) Today we take a dive into the 2012 reds. Thoughts follow.

2012 Galerie “pleinair” Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – Bright fruit starts things off on this flavor-packed wine, which offers lush berries — rasp- and blue- varieties — mixed up with a brambly, woodsy essence. A seductive introduction leads to a rather intense, bittersweet finish that is almost punchy with amaro notes, vanilla, and a touch of balsamic. Nicely balanced, but with tons of complexity to explore. A / $50

2012 Galerie “latro” Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley Sonoma County – A vastly different wine, with restrained sweetness and fruit, showcasing more bitter, even sour, notes of herbs, roots, and leather. Lots of tannin here, with a duskiness that dried figs, tobacco, and tar. Considerably less developed than the above, but a food friendly wine. B+ / $50


Review: 2014 Carne Humana Napa Valley White Wine

carne humanaCarne Humana, literally “human flesh,” is the name of a Napa Valley ranch turned vineyard, which now specializes in field blend bottlings.

This white wine is a hodgepodge of stuff, but it’s predominantly sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and semillon. The nose is marshmallow-like, with citrus and baked apple overtones. On the palate, gentle sweetness is complemented by tropical fruit, cinnamon apple notes, and some unfortunate canned vegetal character that comes along on the finish.

Best with food.

B / $24 / carnehumanawines.com

Review: 2013 Trapiche Broquel Malbec Mendoza

trapicheTrapiche’s Broquel bottling is a widely available malbec and a solid introduction to the style if you’re unfamiliar. Here a nose of dark fruits and modest balsamic notes leads into a rather dense body (though not overly so for Argentine malbec) loaded with notes of grilled plums, red pepper, coffee, and dark chocolate. Lightly bitter on the finish, it tempers some of the heavier fruit notes up front and adds balance.

B+ / $18 / trapichewines-usa.com

Review: 2013 Fortress Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County

Fortress BottleSolid effort here from this Sonoma producer, with a layered wine that offers notes of currants, raspberry, and Christmas spices up front. A bitter edge winds through some distinct vanilla notes before settling down for a somewhat racy, almost peppery character on the finish — a nice counterpart to the denser, almost macerated fruit notes up front. I like the way this wine showcases two sides, but works well as a balanced whole. A great food wine, too.

A- / $25 / [website inactive]