Drinkhacker’s 2017 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

It’s our tenth anniversary, and our tenth holiday gift guide!

After more than 5500 posts — the bulk of them product reviews — we’ve written millions of words on all things quaffable, and as always, we select the cream of the crop to highlight in our annual holiday buying guide. Consider it a “best of the year,” if you’d like — though we do try to aim the list toward products that are actually attainable (sorry, Van Winkle family!) by the average Joe.

As always, the selections below are not comprehensive but represent some of our absolute favorite products. Got a different opinion or think we’re full of it? Feel free to let us know in the comments with your own suggestions for alternatives or questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting. None of these sound any good to you? Not enough scratch? Teetotaling it in 2018? May we suggest a Drinkhacker t-shirt instead?

Again, happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! Here’s to the next 10 years of kick-ass drinks reviews!

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 20162015201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Bourbon – Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon 2017 “Al Young 50th Anniversary” ($500) – I’m not the only one to have fallen in love with Four Roses’ one-off Small Batch bottling, which was made in honor of longtime employee Al Young and his 50 years on the job. While this exquisite small batch hit the market at $150, you’re more likely to find it at triple the cost… which means you can expect triple the thank yous should you buy one for a loved one. If that’s not in the cards, check out this year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection Single Barrel Bourbon 11 Years Old ($300+), A. Smith Bowman Abraham Bowman Sequential Series Bourbon ($40/375ml – hard to find), Wyoming Whiskey Double Cask Limited Edition ($55), or Hirsch High Rye Straight Bourbon Whiskey 8 Years Old ($40). All of these will make for unusual, but highly loved, gifts.

Scotch – Kilchoman Red Wine Cask Matured ($110) – So much good Scotch hit this year that it’s hard to pick a favorite, but for 2017 I simply have to go with the magical combination of Islay peat and red wine casks that Kilchoman just released. It’s an absolute steal at this price; buy one for your best bud and one for yourself, too. Of the many other top bottlings to consider, the ones you should be able to actually find include: Caol Ila Unpeated 18 Years Old Limited Edition 2017 ($100), The Balvenie Peat Week 14 Years Old 2002 Vintage ($93), Bunnahabhain 13 Years Old Marsala Finish ($80), and Glenmorangie Bacalta ($89).

Other Whiskey – Kavalan Amontillado Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky ($400) – I’m not thrilled about dropping another multi-hundred dollar whiskey in this list, but Kavalan hit it out of the park with its finished single malts, the top of the line being this Amontillado-casked number, which is as dark as coffee in the glass. Also consider The Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish Whiskey 16 Years Old ($70), Amrut Spectrum 004 Single Malt Whisky ($500, apologies again), and the outlandish Lost Spirits Distillery Abomination “The Sayers of the Law” ($50, but good luck).

Gin – Cadee Distillery Intrigue Gin ($36) – It’s been a lighter year for gin, but Washington-based Cadee’s combination of flavors in Intrigue are amazing. A close second goes to Eden Mill’s Original Gin ($40), which hails from Scotland.

Vodka – Stateside Urbancraft Vodka ($30) Philadelphia-born Stateside Urbancraft Vodka was the only new vodka we gave exceptional marks to this year. Is the category finally on the decline?

Rum – Havana Club Tributo 2017 ($160) – As Cuban rum finds its way to the U.S., your options for finding top-quality sugar-based spirits are better than ever. Start your collection with Havana Club’s Tributo 2017, which you can now find for much less than the original $390 asking price. More mainstream options: Mezan Single Distillery Rum Panama 2006 ($43), Maggie’s Farm La Revuelta Dark Rum ($35), Cooper River Petty’s Island Driftwood Dream Spiced Rum ($32), or, for those with deep pockets, Arome True Rum 28 Years Old ($600).

Brandy – Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2006 Cognac ($140) – Hine’s 2006 vintage Cognac drinks well above its age and is just about perfect, a stellar brandy that any fan of the spirit will absolutely enjoy. Bache-Gabrielsen XO Decanter Cognac ($100) makes for a striking gift as well, given its lavish presentation and decanter.

Tequila – Patron Extra Anejo Tequila ($90) – No contest here. Patron’s first permanent extra anejo addition to the lineup hits all the right notes, and it’s surprisingly affordable in a world where other extras run $200 and up. Siembra Valles Ancestral Tequila Blanco ($120) is actually more expensive despite being a blanco, but its depth of flavor is something unlike any other tequila I’ve ever encountered.

Liqueur – Luxardo Bitter Bianco ($28) – Who says amaro has to be dark brown in color? Luxardo’s latest is as bitter as anything, but it’s nearly clear, making it far more versatile in cocktails (and not so rough on your teeth). I love it. For a much different angle, check out Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur ($25), a sweet coffee liqueur that’s hard not to love.

Wine  A bottle of wine never goes unappreciated. Here is a selection of our top picks from 2017:

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop us a line or leave a comment here and we’ll offer our best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

San Francisco’s WhiskyFest seemed as popular as ever this year, kicked off with the stampede to the Pappy Van Winkle booth that always marks the start of the show.

As always, there was plenty to enjoy at this year’s event — both new expressions and classic old friends ready for tasting. Here’s a full rundown on everything I tried.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

Scotch

Alexander Murray & Co. The Monumental Blend 18 Years Old / B+ / a touch hot for a blend
Alexander Murray & Co. Braes of Glenlivet Distillery 1994 21 Years Old / B+ / bold, spicy, with lots of oak
Alexander Murray & Co. Strathmill Distillery 1992 24 Years Old / B+ / lots of nougat, more granary note than expected; citrus on the back end
Alexander Murray & Co. Bunnahabhain Distillery 1990 26 Years Old / B+ / earthy and unusual, big wet mineral notes
Alexander Murray & Co. Linkwood Distillery 1997 19 Years Old Cask Strength / B / a bit simple
Alexander Murray & Co. Glenlossie Distillery 1997 19 Years Old Cask Strength / B / old bread notes dominate
Alexander Murray & Co. Bunnahabhain Distillery 1988 28 Years Old Cask Strength / B+ / overpowering sherry, but ample fruit
Bruichladdich Black Art 5 / B / sugar cookie dough, lots of vegetation
Laphroaig 25 Years Old / A+ / drinking absolutely gorgeously today, smoke and sweetness in perfect proportions
Tomatin 1986 / A- / bold cereal and malt notes, challah bread; cherry on the back
The Macallan Classic Cut / A- / the first cask strength Macallan in the U.S. in four years; bold and punchy; honeyed
Compass Box Phenomenology / A- / a mystery blend of five whiskeys; Compass Box will reveal their identity at the end of the year; this is a soft, lightly grainy whiskey with ample honey notes
Compass Box No Name / A- / this one is 75% Ardbeg, but the peat is light and quite floral; a really fun one
Highland Park Fire Edition / B / heavy grain and punchy alcohol today, not my favorite tonight
Highland Park Ice Edition / A / a massive step up, gently minty and cereal-infused; soothing
BenRiach 25 Years Old / A- / lemon is heavy on this light bodied 25
Shackleton Blended Malt (2017) / B+ / the third edition of the Shackleton is unrelated to the bottlings that Richard Paterson pulled together; this is a much cheaper blend in simpler packaging; for what it’s worth, it’s soft and simple inside, too, without much complexity but easy to enjoy
Glenlivet 21 Years Old / A / fully firing, lush with fruit and toast notes
Auchentoshan 1988 Wine Cask Finish / B / 25 years old; 17 of those years in Bordeaux casks; bold and spicy, but the finish is off
Bowmore 25 Years Old / B / lots of potpourri and perfume here, overly floral on the finish

Bourbon

Elijah Craig 23 Years Old / A- / drinking well, lots of wood and baking spice folded together
Stagg Jr. / B / over-wooded, with licorice and cloves; really blown out (don’t know the release number)
W.L. Weller 12 Years Old / A / a classic wheater, with ample butterscotch and toffee; really worthy of its praise
Calumet Farm Single Barrel / B+ / a big undercooked for a single barrel, somewhat thin
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Cherry Wood Smoked Barley 2017 / B+ / corn and barley only; very gentle with the smoke, understated but with a true, fruity complexity; full review in the works
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition “Al Young” / A / gorgeous, a vanilla powerhouse; a favorite of the night

Other Whiskey

John & Allisa’s 2 Month Aged Tennessee Whiskey / NR / this is a preview from the as-yet-unnamed Tennessee distillery that Sazerac got when it purchased the assets of Popcorn Sutton; it’s always fun to taste near new-make, but today it’s all corn, all the time; try us again in 4-6 years
Westland Distillery Peat Week 2017 / B+ / soft for a “peat bomb,” with minty notes on the back end and some stewed prunes
WhistlePig Boss Hog IV: The Black Prince / B / way overoaked, antiseptic at times; full review of this is coming soon
Bushmills 21 Years Old Single Malt / A- / very heavy maltiness, big body, lots of heather and a lovely depth

Cognac

Hennessy Cognac Master Blender’s Selection No. 2 / A- / 18 months in virgin oak, then 10-20 years in used casks; a wood-forward, domineering blend with tons of dried fruit to fill the palate

Review: Merlet Cognac XO and Soeurs Cerises Cherry Brandy Liqueur

Two new releases from Merlet, which makes both cognac and a selection of liqueurs. Today we look at the new XO cognac release, and a brandy-based liqueur infused with cherries. Let’s dive in!

Merlet Cognac XO – This XO is a multi-cru blend with components at least six years old (and likely much more). A bit thin on the nose, without the massive depth of flavor one expects from an XO cognac. What is there is studded with chocolate, some cola, and a modest hit of dried fruit. The palate is equally delicate, almost floral with backing notes of cocoa powder, vanilla cookies, and spice, layered atop that gentle, lightly raisiny core. It’s altogether one of the quietest XO cognacs I’ve encountered, and while that’s not a put-down, it is missing the bold body that I’d normally like to see from this style. 80 proof. B / $125

Merlet Soeurs Cerises Cherry Brandy Liqueur – This spirit is a liqueur made from multiple types of cherries (primarily Morello) macerated in neutral alcohol, then blended with “a touch” of Merlet’s cognac. Beautiful black cherry — almost blueberry at times — fills the aroma of this heavily fragrant and fruity concoction, which is ultra-sweet to the point of pushiness on the palate. There’s no real sense of the cognac here — perhaps a little vanilla and a touch of raisin if you go searching for it — but that’s no big loss. The cherries are the star of the show, showcased here with a touch of violets on the back end, so keep a bottle on hand for when a Singapore Sling or a Blood and Sand is in order. 48 proof. B+ / $25

distillerie-merlet.com

How Is Brandy Made?

“Claret is liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” – Samuel Johnson

So you understand what different kinds of whiskey are called and why, and you can name the aromatics used in gin without a second thought, but brandy is still a spirit that eludes you. You know that there are brandy-based cocktails, like a sidecar, but if asked you couldn’t tell someone what brandy exactly is, let alone what it’s made out of. If you’re a brandy novice, please follow along, as we drink deep of this lesser-understood spirit, and attempt to suss out just what makes brandy, brandy.

To start: What exactly is brandy? The term can be traced back to our old friends the Dutch, who started making brandewijn, or “burnt wine,” in the 12th century. Distillation, instead of fermentation, had just began to take off as an industry, and so the Dutch began making liquor distilled from wine. Like India Pale Ale, this wine liquor was originally created to better survive the Dutch merchant ship voyages to the many colonies under the country’s control, and it was only with time that liquor began to be appreciated on its own merits. So as we can see, wine or grape brandy was the first form that brandy took. The most famous brandies in the world, like Cognac and Armagnac, are distilled from wine, and there are many traditionalists that would scoff at the notion of brandy being made from anything else. Napoleon was a famous advocate for Cognac; the legend goes that in 1811, the then-Emperor Napoleon I visited the Courvoisier warehouses and was so taken with the product that he decreed French troops would receive a measure of Cognac in their field rations. Another grape brandy you might recognize is pisco, a South American product made in Peru and Chile that has carved out its own little niche of late in the world of cocktails. But most brandy cocktails are made with grape brandy: famous examples include the Sidecar and the Brandy Alexander, and adding a half ounce of Cognac to a glass of Champagne is a painless and delicious,= simple drink.

Another, much lesser-known, style of brandy is pomace brandy. Unlike grape brandy, which is made from wine, pomace brandy is perhaps best described as brandy made from every part of the grape except for the fruit itself. Pomace brandy is typically made with the grape’s skins and seeds, and sometimes they even include the stems. As you can imagine, pomace brandy is a very different beast than grape brandy is, having a more bitter, vegetal, and funky quality that is probably a more acquired taste. You won’t see any pomace brandies being advertised as such; the most famous brandy in this style is undoubtedly Italian grappa, and since there’s a chance you’ve never even heard of grappa, it shows how much smaller of a market there is for pomace brandy.

Outside of grape and pomace brandies, there is the general, broad term fruit brandy to denotate brandy made with pretty much anything else. Fruit brandies are wide-ranging and come in many different styles all over the world: some of the most famous are French apple brandy called Calvados, German cherry brandy called Kirschwasser, American apple brandy called Applejack, and Slivovitz, a plum brandy made in many Eastern European countries like Croatia and Slovakia. This is only a small sampling of the fruit brandies of the world, of course, and you can make brandy out of pretty much anything that ferments, including apricots, raspberries, pears, even unexpected items like walnuts or juniper berries.

As you can see, brandy has a long and storied history, and though these days it’s not as popular as, say, bourbon or rum, it’s an incredibly versatile liquor that can find a place in almost any situation. Let us know in the comments how you like your brandy! Grape or fruit? Are you a grappa aficionado? What brandy cocktails do you prefer?

Review: Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask Cognac

The latest from Pierre Ferrand is Reserve Double Cask — not to be confused with Pierre Ferrand Reserve Cognac — which is finished for a year in Banyuls wine casks, the fortified wine that is France’s answer to Port. Some additional detail from the distillery:

Long ago, Cognac producers used a variety of casks to create a fascinating range of taste and complexity. Crafted in the innovative but methodical manner that is Alexandre Gabriel’s hallmark, Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask single-handedly revives one of the vanished traditions of Cognac: maturing the spirit in different types of casks to enrich flavor and deepen complexity. With this lost tradition in mind, Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask is made of Cognac that has been matured 7 to 10 years in small oak barrels kept in seven different aging cellars (some dry, some humid), which is then blended with 20 year old Cognac. Once blended, the Cognac is placed in rare Banyuls casks and aged in one of Pierre Ferrand’s humid cellars for one year.

The brandy is extremely fruit forward on the nose, with some toasty wood notes alongside classic brandy notes of raisin and incense. The palate continues the theme, with an attack of fresh fruit, apricots, lemon, and green apple. Soon after the initial fruit rush comes the spicier and more savory notes — dusky wood, dried fig, cloves, and some licorice. The finish is heavy on baked apple notes, though there’s a bit of a camphor character that bubbles up here too. While none of this is particularly reminiscent of Banyuls (or any other sweet red dessert wine), it is nonetheless an engaging and approachable spirit that’s definitely worth exploring.

84.6 proof.

B+ / $80 / maisonferrand.com

Review: D’usse Cognac XO

I didn’t find much to love in D’usse’s inaugural Cognac, a VSOP, but this upscale update, an XO, has a whole lot more to recommend. All the eaux de vie in the finished product are at least 10 years old — and the black bottle is arguably even cooler than the one used for the VSOP.

The nose is incredibly sultry and aromatic, offering aromas of dark wood, cinnamon sticks, cloves, currants, and a sharp coffee note that lingers for awhile. Fruit is dialed back in favor of duskier notes, spices and toasty wood being the primary elements. On the palate, the coffee and cinnamon meld into a mocha character, quite chocolate-heavy with overtones of toffee, coconut, and a lingering note of burnt sugar and torched banana.

Well-rounded and full of character, this is a Cognac that plays down fruit in favor of more dessert-focused notes — emphasizing the more exotic elements of brandy instead of the lithe sweetness this spirit can often exhibit. It’s a change of pace from what most Cognac fans will be familiar with, but it’s definitively worth exploring.

80 proof.

A- / $230 / dusse.com

Review: Martell VS Single Distillery Cognac

Ready for something new in the world of Cognac? Check out this new idea from the House of Martell. Allow them to explain:

The iconic House of Martell unveils Martell VS Single Distillery, a cognac from a sole distillation source, offering an exclusive new profile to the Martell family of expressions.  This innovative blend unites eaux-de-vie from a single distillery, drawing the same sensorial profile and flavor characteristics for a richer expression of the Martell style. The eaux-de-vie come together in perfect harmony, resulting in an even smoother cognac with an elegant, fruitier profile.

So, in a nutshell, it brings the single malt whisky idea to France, with all the brandy in the bottle coming from a single distillery.

I feel like this experiment would be more intriguing if the brandy was allowed to age a bit more. The nose initially shows the hallmarks of youthful brandy — too much alcohol, some granary character, a little too much wood. The palate finds things softening up, with ample fruit — apple and some citrus — showing itself, along with some traditional raisin and gingerbread notes. That said, it still feels rustic, its various flavors never coming together quite perfectly.

That said, there’s still a lot to like here, and as it opens up with air time, its charms start to deepen, revealing some interesting pineapple and gingerbread notes — but only after awhile. It’s a brandy that merits taking the time required to show itself more clearly, though it never approaches the complexity you’ll find in an older Cognac.

Impatient? Give it a try in a brandy julep.

B+ / $32 / martell.com

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