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!

Review: Paul John Bold Indian Single Malt Whisky


Born and raised in the Goa region of India, Paul John continues to push out new expressions of its single malt whiskies — inspired by Scotland but unique to this part of the world.

The latest expression — you can check out our previous Paul John coverage here — is Paul John Bold, a heavily peated whisky that lets you “plunge headlong into the delicious depths of Goa.”

Heavily peated is no joke. This is a smoke bomb from start to finish, kicking off with heavy forest fire aromas, coal dust, and compost notes. On the palate, peat smoke overwhelms, though hints of citrus peel and raspberry push through underneath. Some water seems like it might help temper the smoky beast, but in reality it does little to drown out the peat bog, dulling instead the fruit, what there is of it, and leaving an ashy taste in the mouth by way of a finish.

92 proof.

C+ / $43 / pauljohnwhisky.com

Review: Amrut Spectrum 004 Single Malt Whisky

In 2004, Amrut Distilleries, based in Bangalore, India, introduced the first single malt whisky made in India to the UK market. Since then, the distillery has released several expressions of single malt all over the world using Indian barley, as well as peated barley sourced from Scotland. Amrut bottles their whisky at a comparatively younger age than most Scottish or Irish distilleries (only 4-5 years old), but that doesn’t mean it tastes young. Because the whisky is aged at 3,000 feet up in the tropical conditions of southern India, maturation occurs at roughly three times the Scottish rate, giving Amrut a significant advantage in the industry.

While the distillery offers traditional single malt expressions, both peated and non-peated and at standard proof or cask strength, they have also experimented with many different barrel finishes. Perhaps none of these experiments has been as complex or as interesting as Amrut’s Spectrum. The goal of this whisky was to achieve the effects of multiple barrel influences simultaneously by constructing casks from four different types of barrels: American oak (with a standard level 3 char), toasted French oak, and two sherry casks (Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez). Amrut then took their original single malt, aged three years in ex-bourbon casks, and transferred it to these Spectrum casks for an undisclosed amount of time. The first run of Spectrum in 2016 actually used an additional Spanish oak as well, but the 2017 release (dubbed 004) dropped it because it reportedly didn’t add that much to the final product. Whether the product of four different casks or five, Amrut Spectrum is an interesting experiment that I’m surprised we haven’t already seen from the industry leaders in Scotland. So what comes out of this Frankenstein barrel, you might ask?

One word: magic.

On the nose, Amrut Spectrum is immediately bold and nuanced with notes of blackberry jam, clove, wet oak, and new shoe leather. It’s silky on the palate with a great balance of sweet and spice. It has a fantastic sherry backbone, with notes of black cherry, ripe prune, and a little campfire smoke, which you would expect with the Oloroso and PX influence, but this surprisingly doesn’t dominate the rest of the spirit. Several different oak tannins are apparent, but again, they’re expertly integrated. There’s also a great balance with the other barrel influences which impart a wide range of rich flavors: dark chocolate, hazelnut, cinnamon, and toffee, along with some citrus and overripe stone fruit. The finish is just long enough to keep you going back to the glass to coax out cracked black pepper underneath lingering coffee notes, plus a little menthol. I was excited to see how this whiskey might develop with a little water, but a few drops just dulled the initial complexity without adding much. This one is perfect at its original abv so sip it neat if you’re lucky enough to find a bottle.

100 proof.

1,800 bottles produced (600 for the U.S.).

A+ / $160 / amrutdistilleries.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyLIVE Washington DC 2017

With so many whiskeys out there to try, from distillers big and small, whiskey festivals can easily be overwhelming. WhiskyLIVE offers a good balance of options, showcasing industry heavy-hitters along with up-and-coming American (and several international) craft distillers. It’s small in comparison to events like WhiskyFest, in both attendance and vendors, so your options are a little more limited. The size, however, does remove some of the annoyance that can come with wading through crowds of people, many of whom are just looking for their piece of the only bottle of Pappy at the Buffalo Trace table.

There was no Buffalo Trace table at this year’s WhiskyLIVE in Washington, DC. In its place, however, were many standout offerings from craft distillers, including Smooth Ambler, Westland, and Sonoma County Distilling Co., as well as a few surprisingly good bottles from regions of the world not known (yet) for their whiskey.

Brief reviews follow.

Scotch

Craigellachie 17 Years Old / B+ / buttery and chewy with honey and anise on the palate
Tullibardine 25 Years Old / B+ / light for an older sherried whisky; warm cereal notes with raisin and citrus on the palate
Aberlour 18 Years Old / B+ / well-balanced with dried fruit and a little dark chocolate on the palate
Aberfeldy 21 Years Old / B+ / malty with a good helping of vanilla
Royal Brackla 16 Years Old / B+ / spicy for a 16 year old with cocoa and raisin on the palate
Talisker 18 Years Old / A- / a perfectly balanced single malt; notes of smoke and ginger with a subtle spice

Irish

Glendalough Double Barrel Irish Whiskey / B+ / ex-bourbon- and oloroso-finished; a little hot with layers of vanilla bean and dried fruit
Glendalough Single Malt Irish Whiskey 13 Years Old / A / a fantastic sipper; the ex-bourbon cask gives this one tons of caramel and toffee
Kinahan’s Single Malt Irish Whiskey 10 Years Old / A- / incredibly fruity with citrus and apple on the palate; a biscuit-like finish

American

Smooth Ambler Wheated Bourbon / B+ / thin but flavorful for such a young wheater with notes of buttered popcorn and caramel sauce; looking forward to its older brothers
Smooth Ambler Old Scout American Whiskey / B+ / good heat with notes of caramel corn and toasted marshmallow
Smooth Ambler Old Scout Single Barrel 11 Years Old / A / the latest gift shop release; thick and honeyed; full of brown sugar and cinnamon with a great chew
Breckenridge Distiller’s High Proof Blend / B+ / molasses on the nose; spicy and oak-forward with subtle baking spice notes
Westland Garryana Native Oak Series 2016 / B+ / a little thin but well-balanced; sweet on the palate with dark red fruit, smoke, and faint sea salt
Westland Winter Release / A- / light but silky with good heat; smoked bacon, pepper, and red licorice on the palate
Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Bourbon 9 Years Old / B+ / hot for 110 proof; caramel apple and clove on the palate with a somewhat short finish
Sonoma County Distilling Co. Cherrywood Rye Whiskey / B+ / bright red fruit on the palate and a nice, warming rye spice
Michter’s Single Barrel Straight Rye 10 Years Old / B+ / minimal rye spice and very little heat; oily and fruity but with a lingering medicinal note I can’t quite place
Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye Cask Strength / B- / grassy with loads of menthol and a drying finish; the youth really shows at a higher proof
Bainbridge Battle Point Whiskey / B / cereal nose; very sweet and a little hot with notes of mint and fudge

International

Paul John Classic Select Cask Indian Single Malt Whisky / A- / rich and flavorful; honeyed palate with great baking spice notes
Paul John Peated Select Cask Indian Single Malt Whisky / B+ / balanced and enjoyable; classic peat smoke and sweet cereal
Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky / B+ / noticeably young but full of light sherry and bright citrus flavors
Lark Single Malt Whisky Cask Strength / A- / big for such a youthful whiskey; thick and sweet with wonderful notes of ripe peach and dried fruit
Nomad Outland Whisky / B+ / the Pedro Ximenez finish is all over this one with raisin notes and a little smoke

Review: Paul John Indian Single Malts – Brilliance and Edited

In America, Amrut is probably the best known whisky from India. Edit: It’s probably the only whisky from India even serious whisky drinkers have encountered. Paul John is a new introduction to the American market — single malt, made in the traditional Scotch style. Some additional details:

Distilled by the warm and tropical beaches of Goa, India, Paul John Indian Single Malt Whisky is a premium spirit crafted from six-row barley grains that grow at the foothills of the Himalayas. Harvested in the summer, the mature six-row barley is responsible for the distinct smokiness and flavor of Paul John Whisky.

In Goa’s tropical and humid climate, whisky matures faster than it does in Europe or the United States. Paul John Whiskies are aged for a minimum of five years and due to the accelerated maturation, whisky that has been matured in India for five years is comparable to Scotch that has been aged for over 10 years. The warm weather in Goa also increases the Angel’s Share, or annual evaporation rate, to 8%.

Today we look at Paul John’s two entry-tier bottlings, Brilliance and Edited, both straight outta Goa!

Paul John Brilliance Indian Single Malt Whisky – Paul John’s entry level bottling, matured in bourbon casks. No age statement. This initially comes across as a workmanlike whisky, with a nose of simple granary notes, gentle wood, caramel, and some raw ethanol notes. The palate does manage to kick things up with notes of incense, red pepper, hefty baking spices, and toasty, chewy wood notes. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of character here, and a deft balance that showcases wood and spice. The finish surfaces light fruit notes, giving it a pleasing (yet simple) finale. 92 proof. B+ / $60

Paul John Edited Indian Single Malt Whisky – Production details are again unclear — as is how it is “edited” — though this expression contains some peated whisky. From the nose, it’s definitely more than “some,” as the clear notes of smoky peat immediately make an impression. Beneath that lie some fruity notes, aromas you don’t really see in the Brilliance bottling. On the palate, sweet and peat get together harmoniously, taking supple apple and citrus notes and folding in notes of sweet pastry dough and sugar cookies. The peat is laced throughout, well-integrated and far from overwhelming. A nice twist on the base of Brilliance. 92 proof. B+ / $65

pauljohnwhisky.com

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2014

Wet weather didn’t stop the masses from crowding onto the San Francisco Belle this year, a rite of passage for Bay Area whisky lovers attending the annual Whiskies of the World Expo. Lots of great stuff on tap this year, particularly from independent Scotch bottlers. Without further ado…

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World San Francisco 2014

Bourbon and American Whiskey

Balcones Brimstone / B+ / made from smoked corn; intriguing but a lot like sitting porchside in Santa Fe
Balcones Texas Single Malt / B / rough and tumble, fiery, with big grain character
Black Saddle 12 Years Old Bourbon / B+ / long black and blueberry notes; unusually fruity
Calumet Farm Bourbon / B / straightforward; tough to get into
Corsair Old Punk Whiskey / B+ / a pumpkin spice-flavored whiskey; curious; tastes like Thanksgiving, of course
High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram / B+ / Rendezvous Rye finished in Port barrels; a bit heave with the fruity, Port-laden finish
High West The Barreled Boulevardier  / B / a barrel-aged cocktail from HW; a little heavy on the Gran Classico for my tastes
High West “mystery whiskey” 12 Years Old / A / a hush-hush grain whiskey, aged 12; surprisingly good stuff, watch this space…
Lexington Finest Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey / B+ / heavy with sweetness, but drinkable
Lost Spirits Seascape II / B+ / second round with this peated whiskey finished in white wine barrels; brooding but restrained
Lost Spirits Umami / A- / a crazy concoction made with 100ppm peat and salty seawater; difficult to describe in just a few sips… review hopefully forthcoming

Scotch

Arran Bourbon Premium Single Cask 1996 / A- / lush and rounded, malty with good fruit
Balblair 1975 Vintage / A / a standout; big, silky, and malty; soothing finish
Blackadder Bruichladdich 21 Years Old Raw Cask / A / a top pick of the show; unfiltered Bruichladdich aged in a first-use charred cask, very unusual for Scotch (you can even see chunks of charred wood floating in the bottle); intense, chewy fruit and nuts; a marvel
Duncan Taylor Octave MacDuff 1998 14 Years Old / A- / great balance
Duncan Taylor Octave Miltonduff 2005 7 Years Old / A- / lots of sherry and nougat, with huge floral notes; another surprisingly good, young spirit
Duncan Taylor Black Bull Kyloe / B+ / not bad for a five year old blended whisky; nice mouthfeel, cherry fruit, plums on the back
Duncan Taylor Dimensions North British 1978 34 Years Old / A- / a single-grain whisky; still has its grainy funk showing a bit; caramel up front with a biting finish
Duncan Taylor Bunnahabhain 1991 21 Years Old / A / gorgeous honey and spice on this
Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2001 12 Years Old / B+ / big peat, rush of Madeira notes
Exclusive Malts Glencadam 1991 21 Years Old / B+ / smoldering, hay and heather
Exclusive Malts North Highland 1996 17 Years Old / A- / chew and rich, with raisins and plums
Glenmorangie Companta / B / Glenmorangie’s latest, finished in Burgundy and fortified Cote du Rhone casks; sounds like a lot of work for a pretty boring spirit that doesn’t have much balance
Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban / B- / finished in ruby port casks; snoozer, missing the port altogether this time around
Gordan & MacPhail Mortlach 16 Years Old / A- / chewy malt and cookies
Gordan & MacPhail Scapa 10 Years Old / A- / good balance of nougat and cereal
Highland Park 18 Years Old / A / for old time’s sake… still got it
Old Pulteney 30 Years Old / A – / solid, a sunny dram
Silver Seal 16 Years Old Speyside / B+ / straightforward, lots of nougat
Silver Seal 20 Years Old Speyside / A- / an improvement, sedate with a little cereal to balance things

World Whiskies 

Amrut Fusion / B+ / barley from Scotland and India; a little minty, smoky too; shortish finish
Amrut Intermediate Sherry / A- / lots of spice, some menthol; for those who like their whiskeys huge
Canadian Club Small Batch Classic 12 Years Old / B / why not? some spice, lots of wood
Kavalan Solist Ex-Bourbon Cask Single Malt Whisky / A- / chewy, great balance
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky / A- / lovely but strong with citrus notes
Sullivan’s Cove Double Cask / A- / muted on the nose, lots of malt
Sulivan’s Cove French Cask / A / a top pick, worthy of the praise being heaped on it; quite fruity and sweet, but gorgeous

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2012

Kudos to Douglas Smith for putting together this event, easily the best installment of the Whiskies of the World show that I’ve experienced since I started this blog six years ago.

Loaded with whiskies you rarely see in the U.S. or even at whisky shows, WotW 2012 also had plenty of long-time favorites on hand to re-experience, as well. Interested in world whiskies from Australia, India, and other far-off places, like Utah? WotW had plenty of them to encounter here, along with plenty of food, a good-sized (but not overwhelming) crowd, and, mercifully, fewer bagpipes than ever (at least while I was in attendance). Lots of independent bottlers here too, some of whom (like Blackadder) I’ve never seen at a whisky show to date.

As for the whisky, there was plenty to enjoy, but of course there were some whiskys offering more enjoyment than others. Thoughts follow.

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World San Francisco 2012

Scotland

Bruichladdich Black Art 2 21 Years Old / B+ / the most unique whisky of the night; dark, mushroomy, massive, with a Play-doh finish
Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten / A / great little caramel charmer; already winning awards left and right; full review to come next week
Bruichladdich Octomore 4.1 / A- / still winning, a smoke monster that doesn’t kill you
Blackadder Smoking Islay 11 Year Old Raw Cask / B+ / mild peat, oddly sweet finish
Chieftain’s Glenturret 21 Year Old Cask Strength / A / great body
Chieftain’s Mortlach 16 Year Old Sherry Cask Strength / A-
Balblair 1991 / B / rich and bittersweet, heavy peat, fudge finish
Balblair 1997 / B+ / better balance, sweeter
Douglas of Drumlanrig Breaval 11 Year Old / B / tastes young
Douglas of Drumlanrig Macallan 21 Year Old / B
Douglas of Drumlanrig Arran 13 Year Old / B-
GlenDronach 15 Year Old / A-
Glenglassaugh 26 Year Old / A- / better balance than the 37 Year Old
Glenglassaugh 37 Year Old / B+ / really malty, tannic edge; too long in wood
Glenglassaugh Revival / B- / heavy wood on this four year old whisky
Glenmorangie Artein / A- / this distillery’s latest, finished in Supertuscan wine casks; wine character is there, but lightly so
Isle of Arran Amarone Finish / A- / intense and powerful
Isle of Arran Sauternes Finish / B+ / edgy, light sweet on the finish
Kilchoman Sherry Cask Exclusive / A- / really rounded out thanks to that sherry finish
Kilchoman Vintage 2006 / B+ / punchy
Laphroaig Quarter Cask / B+ / always a standby
Muirhead’s Silver Seal Speyside 12 Years Old / B / malty
Muirhead’s Silver Seal Speyside 16 Years Old / B+
Muirhead’s Silver Seal Speyside 1987 25 Years Old / A- / nougat, mellow sweetness, good rounded whisky
Old Pulteney 17 Year Old / A- / edgy and deep; miles away from OP 12 Year Old (which I think is out of balance)
Old Pulteney 21 Year Old / A- / very similar, but better balance
Old Pulteney 30 Year Old / A / lovely, a rich cookie dough character
Samaroli Caol Ila 1980 / A- / mellowed peat
Samaroli Evolution 2011 / A / one of my favorite whiskys ever; still solid and delicious (though not quite the A+ I’ve previously rated it)
Samaroli Glenburgie 1989 / A-
Samaroli Glenlivet 1977 / A
Samaroli Highland Park 1989 / B+ / doesn’t feel its age
Samaroli Linkwood 1983 / B+ / very fruity
Samaroli Tomintoul 1967 / A / another winner, with massive depth, a knockout
Speyburn Bradan Orach Edition / B / a younger (no age statement) version of Speyburn 10, tastes that way; limited character
Tomatin 30 Year Old / B+ / really clunky, malt and citrus not quite in balance
Tomintoul 31 Year Old Reserve Limited Edition / A / bit of spice, nutmeg and ginger, beautiful

Other Whiskies

High West Whiskey Son of Bourye / A- / lovely body
Pendleton 1910 Canadian Rye Whisky / A- / 10 year old rye (100%); big cherry notes
Amrut Sherry Intermediate Cask Strength Limited Edition / A- / great slug of sherry on the finish of this Indian dram
Amrut Kadhambam Single Malt / A- / aged in five different types of casks; lots of body, big finish
Sullivan’s Cove Single Malt 46% / B+ / an 11 year old Australian malt, super sweet

Other Spirits

Amrut Old Port Rum / B/ very sweet, lots of apple notes
Craft Distillers Maison Surrenne Cognac Distillerie Galtaud Unblended Borderies / A- / light fruit, long sweet finish
Craft Distillers Germain-Robin Small Blend no. 1 Brandy / A / great balance, a blend of brandies from a range of west coast wines dating back to 1983

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