Your Holiday Spirits Guide Part One
Humans have been gifting booze since we invented the idea of giving gifts, and few people who receive a bottle or two will look at it and wish they’d gotten a sweater instead. It’s the rare gift where, if one already has it, one isn’t too upset about getting another. Yet the thoughtful purchase of alcohol as a gift can be complicated, depending on what you have available to you and what the person you’re giving it to enjoys. Or rather, it could be difficult, if we weren’t here to stumble into your home like a tipsy Joulupukki fresh from the Wilde Jagd and ready to help. We can, I think, forego the suggestion of a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue, or Hennessy, or Remy. They are fine and welcome gifts, but you don’t need to be told again about them. Also note that making a list like this is a prime example of what writers tastelessly call “killing our babies.” There is so much to include, and so little room if you want to actually be a useful guide. So let us reach into our bag and offer up some deep cuts along with some greatest hits. Something that will delight a casual drinker or surprise an old veteran. Something for all drinkers, from the extravagant to the bargain, but always well worth it!
PART ONE: VODKA, GIN, TEQUILA, & MEZCAL
Vodka and gin can sometimes seem too commonplace to make for an exceptional gift, and tequila too often comes with the “I don’t drink tequila, not after this one night in college...” disclaimer. Which is unfair to all. Vodka can be much more than flavorless, colorless potency, and the affection of many Russian brands for ostentatious presentation makes for an ideal gift. Similarly, there is a lot more to gin than just a bottle of one of the big brands. And as for tequila and mezcal, there is so much amazing undiscovered country there that one could get lost -- certainly long enough to forget that night in college.
Beluga Gold Line ($100-120)
If you intend to drink like a modern day tsar, you’d be hard pressed to find a more luxurious indulgence than this Russian gem. It comes in a leather case. The “label” is an engraved metal plate. The cork is encased in a cocoon of clay you have to break with a small hammer (included). What awaits inside is mellow, floral grain vodka with a marzipan sweetness lingering in the background.
Double Cross ($40)
Made from organic wheat in Slovakia, with a substantial, oily body and notes of citrus and grain, the bottle design alone may make it a great gift, but they don’t get by on presentation alone. What’s inside the bottle is equally high quality.
Hailing from the Catskills Distilling Company in upstate New York and made from wheat, Peace exemplifies what American craft vodka can be. Buttery, creamy, with faint hints of natural (no syrupy flavored vodka, this) vanilla, tropical fruit, and yeasty dinner rolls. The sort of vodka that will chop wood, build you a fire, then tell you about befriending bears.
Jewel of Russia Classic ($30-35)
Perfect for sipping while zipping across the icy wastes aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. Or, you know, at home. Made from hard winter wheat and rye then distilled to produce an exceptionally clean spirit that is equal parts creamy, grainy, and spicy (from the rye). Drinks a bit minerally and oily, but in the way a great vodka is supposed to.
Russian Standard ($17-22)
If ice fishing with your comrades in the list of things to do this winter, this is what will keep you warm. It’s made from hard winter wheat in the city of St. Petersburg and is alternately creamy and spicy. There’s a bit of an alcohol nose and kick to it as well, making it perfect for a rowdy session. Pretty sure you are required to toss this bottle from person to person, rather than passing it.
West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler is best-known for their independent bottlings of bourbon, but this gin aged in an American oak cask is an eye-opener that walks the line between whiskey and gin. Orange and nutmeg settle alongside juniper, vanilla, wood spice, and wildflowers. Not only is it a gin for whiskey drinkers; it’s an unbelievable gin for gin drinkers as well.
The standard proof Martin Miller’s dry gin makes an incredible Martini; this higher proof version makes an even better Martini. As with most all London Dry gin, juniper dominates the flavor, but there’s also orange and lemon, pine, and spice. And if it makes a damn good Martini, wait until you taste it in a Negroni.
Plymouth Navy Strength ($35-40)
“Navy Strength” refers to the minimum proof a gin can be while still allowing your cannon powder to ignite should it become soaked in the spirit. While you might not be locked in ship-to-ship combat, this dry, citrusy gin will still make you feel like a sophisticated officer in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.
Anchor Distilling Old Tom Gin ($30-35)
Tanqueray Old Tom Gin($25-30)
Old Tom gin was for years a forgotten style that has made a comeback, thanks largely to the popularity of Old Tom gin in pre-Prohibition cocktails. It’s a slightly sweeter, more full-bodied style than than the better-known London Dry, with lots of citrus, juniper, and other botanicals. If your friend is a classic cocktail fan, then Old Tom is a must-have. (Note: the Anchor Old Tom was a bronze medalist in the 2014 NY International Spirits Competition.)
Boomsma Jonge Genever ($24)
Genever is the original gin style, originated in The Netherlands. The fact that it is aged lends an oaky vanilla character beneath the signature juniper and citrus of gin. Boomsma is a new distiller on the scene, and Jonge is a young, mellow genever. Try it in most any cocktail that calls for gin, and the results are amazing. Bronze medalist in the 2014 NYISC.
Tequila & Mezcal
Herradura Selección Suprema ($350)
The juicy sweet cactus taste of tequila is matched exquisitely by flavors of cocoa, smoke, and cinnamon thanks to this superior offering spending just over four years aging in a barrel. Smoked agave and peppers, toasted oak, and a distinct hint of Mexican chocolate. This is no “bad memory from college” tequila. This is the stuff of dons and Mexican-Spanish royalty. A tequila that holds its own against ultra-premium scotch.
El Tesoro Anejo Tequila ($50)
Although I’m sure it would make a superb margarita, the divine complexity and joy to be extracted from this tequila come by sipping it straight. Earthy and smoky, with lots of fruity agave, pepper, and citrus that all goes down exceptionally smooth thanks to this tequila spending 2-3 years in used bourbon barrels. Silver medal, 2014 NYISC.
Don Julio Blanco Tequila ($35-50)
If you know what to expect from tequila, this one will challenge your knowledge. It’s like the Laphroaig of tequila. Oily, rich, with lots of black pepper, sage, and tar are backed by more familiar fruit and smoky agave. And yet it all goes down smooth. Like driving down a lonely road in the Mexican highlands.
Mezcales de Leyenda Guerrero ($65-70)
Perhaps the ultimate Mexican craft spirit, Mezcales de Leyenda is a cooperative of small producers. Rich, smoky, leathery with signature agave, orange, and even a hint of tropical fruit. The perfect mezcal if you are looking for something to pair with smoky meats or BBQ, though it does pretty well by itself, too.
Ilegal Reposado Mezcal ($60-65)
Aged for 4-5 months in new, charred oak barrels, Ilegal Reposado boasts all the great smoky, peppery, citrusy notes of a top notch mezcal and combines them with vanilla, toffee, and oak from the freshly charred barrels. If you know a bourbon drinker who wants to branch out, this roasted pepper meets butterscotch mezcal is ready to help.
Lighter on the smoke than one often expects from mezcal, this offering gives you a sweeter take on agave with lots of fruit. It is a great way to ease someone new into the world of mezcal without smacking in the face with a smoldering chunk of agave. If Ilegal Reposado is the mezcal for bourbon drinkers, this is the one for wine drinkers. It also won a silver medal in the 2014 NYISC.