Drinkhacker’s 2016 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Our ninth year is under our belt, and that means our ninth annual installment of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — is here. As always, the list gives you the lowdown on some of the best-rated products we reviewed over the last 12 months, with at least some eye toward availability and affordability. (Though, as you’ll see, some selections can cost a pretty penny…)

As always, the offerings below comprise a small selection of our favorite wines and spirits from the last year, and there are many other worthwhile products on the market worth considering. Feel free to sound off in the comments with suggestions for alternatives or questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting.

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! We look forward to providing our guidance on the world of wine, beer, and spirits as we begin our 10th year on the web and approach our 5,000th post! Stay tuned for the appropriate festivities come the big anniversary in September 2017.

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 2015201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

of-1920-rendering-jpegBourbon – Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon ($60)  As inventory pressures continue to pound bourbon country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find solid “giftable” bourbon bottlings on the market. Rarities like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sell out before they ever hit shelves. This year I’m naming to my top pick something that you ought to have more luck finding, but which is just as good as anything else out there: Old Forester’s most recent Whiskey Row expression, meant to mimic bourbon made during its “medicinal” Prohibition days. Other top tipples: Col. E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood ($70 on release, $500+ now), Blood Oath Pact No. 2 ($100), Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish ($100, often available for less), and, for the budget-minded, 1792 High Rye Bourbon ($36).

Scotch – Compass Box The Circus ($300) – You want to wow your loved one this year? Give them The Circus, a blend that comes complete with its own infographic outlining all the whiskies inside. It’s a complex but truly outstanding whisky worth every penny. Other top picks for 2016 aren’t going to come cheap, including Chivas Regal Ultis ($200), The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Water Level Route ($350), Chieftain’s Linkwood 1997 17 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish ($90), and your best bet for an easier-to-find bottling, Glenmorangie Milsean ($130 on release but easy to find for $100 or less).

Other Whiskey – Booker’s Rye “Big Time Batch” ($300 on release) – You know who nailed it this year? Jim Murray! The crazed whiskey critic is known for his outlandishly goofy “best of the year’ picks, but he hit it perfectly with his pick of the first ever release of Booker’s Rye. The bad news: It was already a cult hit, and whatever’s left on the market is going to cost you at least $600 a bottle. More sensible options include Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old ($90), High West’s latest release of Bourye ($80), and Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof ($70), which is lightly flavored with apples in the “Alabama style.”

oregonbarrelagedginbottleworkGin – Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels ($38) – We’ve been drowning in gin this year, which means there’s plenty of solid and unique bottlings to choose from on the market. My top pick is this one from our pals at Big Bottom, which is aged solera-style and is perfect for wintertime sipping thanks to a fun holiday spice character. For unaged expressions, check out Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin ($40) or Spain’s Gin Mare ($38).

Vodka  Stolichnaya Elit Vodka ($47)  It’s more than just a fancy bottle; Stoli Elit is very good vodka, too. Beyond that, check out Vikre Lake Superior Vodka ($35) or Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka ($35), one of the best citrus vodkas around.

Rum – Angostura Caribbean Rum 1824 12 Years Old ($60)  Great rum needn’t break the bank. Angostura 1824 is a top-notch 12 year old with all kinds of versatility. Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary ($43) and Ron Zacapa 23 ($48) both make for awesome alternatives.

martell-blue-swift-largeBrandy – Martell Blue Swift ($50) – Martell wasn’t the first to put brandy into whiskey barrels to develop a more sophisticated, deeper flavor, but it is doing the best at it at the moment. This expression is gorgeous and cheap when it comes to Cognac. Another great, budget option is Gilles Brisson’s VSOP, a steal at $35. For the other direction, consider Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” ($2250), one of the most exquisite sips I had this year.

Tequila – Tequila Herradura Seleccion Suprema Extra Anejo ($340) – Tons of great tequila hit this year, but I have to give the nod to Herradura and its extra anejo bottling of Seleccion Suprema, a luscious experience that every tequila lover needs to try. A smattering of top agave alternatives across the price board includes Pasote Reposado ($59), Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel Mezcal ($96), Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Anejo ($100), and Asombroso Ultrafino The Collaboration Barrel 1 ($2500).

cynar 70Liqueur – Cynar 70 ($37/1 liter) – Cynar gets a proof upgrade and a flavor boost in this new edition, which I think is an even better rendition of this classic amaro. I also can’t stop raving about Grand Poppy ($30), another amaro. Iichiko Bar Fruits Yuzu Liqueur ($11/375ml) is also highly worth picking up, as is Few Spirits Anguish & Regret Liqueur ($30), a unique spiced liqueur.

Wine  A smattering of giftable picks for the wine-lover in your life, with California showing incredibly strongly in 2016.

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: Bellion Vodka

bellion

I won’t rehash the science of Bellion — in a nutshell, it includes additives designed to protect your liver from damage related to alcohol consumption — what we turn our attention to is how this vodka, technically “vodka infused with natural flavors” actually tastes.

Results: Foremost, it is sweet, and unbelievably so. Bellion’s secret “functional” ingredient NTX is primarily a licorice extract, and Bellion tastes a lot like what I imagine it would be like to melt down a one-pound bag of black chewable licorice candies and pour them into a glass. Licorice vodka? Well, I happen to be a fan of licorice, and I can’t get too far into a single glass of Bellion. The only character it offers outside of super-sweetened licorice notes is a vague alcoholic astringency, nothing unusual for vodka but little more than a dull distraction in Bellion.

To be fair, Bellion was specifically created for mixing, and honestly I don’t know how anyone will consume it otherwise. Licorice cosmos, I guess?

80 proof.

C- / $30 / bellionvodka.com

Review: CooranBong and Bombora Australian Vodka (2016)

Bombora and CooranBong, both Australian vodkas distilled from grapes, hit the scene in 2011. We dutifully reviewed them at the time, but lately both have been reportedly reformulated (details have not been released) and repriced, though oddly no label or bottle changes have taken place.

Fresh reviews follow (it turns out much has changed on both spirits), based on 2016 bottlings.

Both remain at 80 proof.

CooranBong Australian Vodka – (Aborigine for “water over rocks.”) Distilled 10 times from Barossa Valley grapes. The nose is relatively modern and moderately sweet, with cotton candy and vanilla overtones. The aroma is thin, though, quickly fading to nothing. On the palate, flavor is fleeting. A relatively gummy body develops fairly quickly, however, which offers very little character aside from some roasted vegetable notes that linger on the finish. All told, while it’s a poor choice for sipping straight, its relatively neutral profile makes it a reasonable mixing ingredient. B- / $25 / cooranbong.com

Bombora Vodka – (Aborigine for “reef.”) Distilled 7 times from grapes. Fresh on the nose, with mild lemon notes and a moderate herbal character, it offers an astringency on the nose familiar to any old world vodka drinker. The palate takes things in a different direction, immediately hitting with strong herbal and grassy aromatics that come across like a heady gewurztraminer wine. As the vodka develops, along come stronger lemon peel notes, white flowers, and a lightly bitter finish. It’s not a perfect spirit, but it’s a considerable improvement over the release from five years ago. B+ / $20 / bomboravodka.com

Review: Boardroom Vodka and Gin

boardroom-vodka

Now that Trump Vodka is defunct, what is a discerning CEO to use to make his martini? Might I suggest Boardroom Vodka or Gin? Seems like the perfect thing to sip on before you utter, “You’re fired.”

Boardroom Spirits is a new company that hails from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, where it distills its white spirits from a mash of 100% non-GMO corn in a column still. (Additional spirits, not reviewed here, are both in production and planned.)

We tasted the two big guns from Boardroom to get things started.

Both are 80 proof.

Boardroom Vodka – Clean nose, very medicinal — almost nostril-scorching with its strong hospital character. On the palate the vodka is less overwhelming, giving up some sweetness and a touch of popcorn character, slightly nougat-like on the back end. Otherwise, it’s quite straightforward and neutral, with very little in the way of secondary character. With a foot in both the old world and the new, it’s an unusual vodka, though not one without some measure of both charm and versatility. B+ / $20

Boardroom Gin – Billed as “the non-gin drinker’s gin,” botanicals are not disclosed. Aromas run heavily to lemon and grapefruit, with floral honeysuckle notes following along. On the palate, it offers some of the same sweet notes as the vodka, which tempers the fruit and flowers, but the finish is quite clean, fading out with just a hint of citrus. I’m sure this is billed as a “non-gin drinker’s gin” because of its distinct lack of juniper, which is present to some degree but really dialed back to the point where it largely comes across as an element in the finish. The pungency of the botanicals feel very gin-like, however, and I expect both gin drinkers and non- will find it appealing. B+ / $27

boardroomspirits.com

Review: Smirnoff Red, White & Berry Vodka

smirnoff-rwb

This limited edition seasonal was technically released for the summer and the Fourth of July, but it fell through the cracks and finally resurfaced here at Drinkhacker HQ. (Don’t worry, there’s plenty still available, even though it’s November.)

This flavored vodka packs three different elements into a single bottle: cherry, citrus, and blue raspberry. That is a damn lot of sweetness packed into one red, white, and blue-clad bottle, and even nosing it can be daunting. Powerfully aromatic with cherry notes foremost, it avoids smelling like cough syrup thanks to the deft and careful application of sugar.

The palate finds both cherry and orange notes the most prominent; they work fairly well together as fruity companions, and the flavors are reasonably authentic, though they veer heavily into the candy-coated world. The finish is lingering and quite sweet, but surprisingly not unpleasant. While it’s hardly the pinnacle of sophistication, I could totally see this working in a cocktail, punch, or even a simple highball with a mixer.

60 proof.

B / $15 / smirnoff.com

Review: Humboldt Distillery Humboldt’s Finest Hemp Vodka

Humboldts Finest April2016

Humboldt’s finest? We’re talking about redwood trees, amirite people? OK then, we’re really talking about cannabis sativa, good old hemp seed, and here’s another entry into the burgeoning market of hemp-flavored (and THC-free, of course) vodka.

There’s no real production info here, except that the vodka includes natural flavors and, oddly, certified color (it is tinted just the barest shade of green).

Many a hemp vodka can be an overbearing, hoary experience, but Humboldt’s is very, very mild. The nose offers notes of lime, lemongrass, and a little white sugar, but is otherwise straightforward. The palate is again quite light, slightly sweet with gentle herbal notes, plus hints of banana, orange peel, chicory, and a lightly earthy, cinnamon-dusted finish. It’s all very innocuous, and not at all bad, though there’s nothing here that even remotely recalls “hemp” in any of its incarnations, should you be looking for that skunky funk to get your Friday night started.

But don’t let that stop you. Humboldt suggests using this spirit as a substitute for gin in your favorite cocktail. That’s a fine idea, but it’s so mild that I’d take it one step further and suggest trying it in place of any old vodka, too.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 / humboldtdistillery.com

Review: Smithworks American Made Vodka

smithworks

“From the heartland,” the bottle boldly proclaims. Water from Lake Fort Smith, grain (corn) from Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Triple distilled in Kansas, bottled in Fort Smith, Arkansas. And Blake Shelton is the brand’s spokesperson.

So yeah, that’s some heartland stuff right there.

I’m happy to report that the heartland acquits itself admirably with this production. The vodka is solid stuff.

The nose is clean, offering lightly medicinal notes and a modest charcoal undercurrent. While lightly sweet on the palate, Smithworks keeps the sugar in check and lets some other elements shine on the body, including florals and quite a bit of fruit: a light dusting of cherries, red apples, and a hint of rhubarb. The finish is clean, again a touch sweet but on the whole working well with those light fruit elements.

All told it’s a versatile vodka, and one you can feel proud of pouring into your punch on the Fourth of July, dad gummit!

A- / $16 / smithworksvodka.com

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