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Holiday Survival Guide: Potable Perfection: Spirits

Brett Anderson

Drinks. Whether in the more formal form of a cocktail, or simply poured straight up, one is born (and borne to a parched guest) nearly every second of this well-festooned season, which spans the weeks separating Thanksgiving’s pickled cranberry relish from the blessed combination of Alka-Seltzer and aspirin that delivers so much welcome relief on New Year’s morning. This period can be a trying one for the host and guest, both of whom are compelled to practice the intricate arts of tasteful entertainment and gracious good manners. Minds whose worries typically do not extend beyond the simple evaluation of a merger arbitrage hedge fund must now determine which bourbon will bring to an old-fashioned that perfect note of nuttiness, or which cognac will convey to one’s new business partner a salubrious impression of refinement tempered by fiscal responsibility. The following list endeavors to anticipate and resolve these spirited dilemmas.

 

In Case of Emergency, Pour
Not every host—or, for that matter, guest—is content to enjoy the precious gifts of the still one bottle at a time; sometimes, the demands of proper entertaining require that one’s “well” spirits be stocked by the case. These universally embraced bottlings will serve as the mainstays of any impeccably equipped bar, whether at home or aboard ship, ensuring that one is always prepared, no matter what the occasion.

Plymouth Gin Original
More pure than puritan, despite its name, this British import produces a smooth Thanksgiving Day martini certain to suit even the most practical pilgrim. ($21)

Bombay Sapphire Gin
Like the Raj, this essential gin blends strength with a hint of Eastern exoticism in the form of delicate floral perfumes and spice—for those who enjoy a Mogul touch to their martini. ($19)

Zyr Vodka
American businessman and Russophile David Katz—a true American in Moscow—makes this fresh wheat-and-rye-based vodka in Russia. ($32)

 

Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This amber elixir always hits the mark (and the spot) when Kentucky’s finest is called for. ($20)

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey
Bourbon aficionados who generally eschew sour mash when sidling up to the bar will discover in this single-barrel whiskey all the rich toffee, caramel, spice, and oak found on the other side of the state line in happy consanguinity with Tennessee’s mellow charcoal finish. ($40)

Pendelton 10 Year Old Canadian Whiskey
In affairs of both state and still, the Maple Leaf must be acknowledged. This delectable confection—replete with brown sugar aromas, vanilla, rum, and toasted oak—will pour over rocks as appetizingly as Canada’s finest over a stack of fresh hotcakes. ($26)

Johnnie Walker Black Label Blended Scotch Whiskey
Basic black forms the foundation of any classic wardrobe, as well as that of any distinguished wet bar. ($25)

Brain Teasers & Tongue Twisters
In their not altogether successful war against the rational, the likes of André Breton, René Magritte, and Max Ernst sought to unite the conscious and unconscious realms of the mind by subverting the dictates of logic and expectation. The resulting stream of hallucinatory poetry, paintings of faceless people, and collages of human figures with bird heads, while defying explanation, never engaged the senses and disengaged the sense half so pleasurably as will this assortment of slightly surreal spirits.

Hendrick’s Gin
Hardly anyone in Scotland has heard of this clean-drinking, superbly refreshing Scottish gin, which perks up the palate with cucumber crispness. ($25)

Hangar One Mandarin Blossom Vodka
Named by its makers for the abandoned military facility from which the brand was launched, this “insanely great” infused vodka blushes with the exotic perfume of the citrus blossom, as well as the biting sweetness of the fruit itself. ($40)

 

Castello Banfi Grappa
A veritable condottiere among liquors, this great grappa attacks the taste buds with an advance guard of crunchy green apple and peach, followed by an all-out barrage of pepper. ($45/375 ml)

Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Fino Sherry Finish Malt Whisky
The 16 Men of Tain (the mysterious crew responsible for the production of all Glenmorangie) have outdone themselves with this languorously long-finishing, fruit-filled, candied, and slightly smoked malt whisky. ($90)

Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength Islay Whisky
An exercise in extreme unction, this dark, oily Islay has all of the brine of the sea blended with molasses, toffee, sherried oak, and the pungent smoke of peat. ($60)

Old Rip Van Winkle 13 Years Old Family Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
This powerful rye has a finish as long as its namesake’s beard, a deep, earthy flavor as leathery as his face, and chewy caramel and nut notes that would make the old Dutchman drink with his dentures firmly in place. ($28)

Pyrat Cask 23 Rum
Dark amber in color with intense vanilla and nutmeg flavors, this rum will behave in your snifter more like an august cognac than the humbler by-product of sugarcane. ($300)

When Five O'Clock Rolls Around
The cocktail hour furnishes a serene island of enlightenment in an indecorous and crude world where human discourse is largely relegated to precincts of the cellular airwaves or the software programming of a BlackBerry. This refreshing ritual allows us to contemplate topics ranging from the simple matter of mankind’s spiritual destiny to a flawless Sazerac. The following selection should provide the necessary tools to properly perform this vital daily sacrament.

Tanqueray No. Ten Gin
Number Ten’s medium body and classic botanical bouquet enable it to slip with versatility into a wide array of recipes. ($25)

 

Ketel One Vodka
A favorite of cocktail party hosts, this gentle vodka drinks smoothly while perking up the palate with a hint of lemon oil. ($20)

Grey Goose Vodka
A Gallic twist on the classic clear spirit, Grey Goose is light, slightly minty, and delightfully clean, having been distilled using water purified by Champagne limestone. ($30)

Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
As powerful as it is pleasing, this Kentucky thoroughbred pulls into the lead with its rich burnt-sugar nose and gorgeous oak. At 101 proof, however, you may wish to rein this one in with water or soda. ($20)
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Booker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This bourbon smolders in a sweet chocolate and toasted almond flavor before firing off, at the finish, with a salvo of hot pepper. Suggestion: Give this a try in your next Irish coffee. ($50)

 

Dewar’s 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
Medium-bodied, buttery, and solidly satisfying, Dewar’s mans the bar admirably at the cocktail hour. Substituting a splash of this honeyed liquid for vermouth will transform the workaday martini into a sultry celebration in the glass. ($30)

If Ever They Try to Serve You Haggis…
It is the moment most feared by foreign diners in Scotland: the low, menacing rasp of the bagpipe that causes the very crystals of the chandelier to tremble in fear. Then the solemn procession of kilted attendants bearing on a silver platter the strangely burnished, metallic orb that, when sliced, will reveal its sinister secrets. At this juncture, the prudent guest will have fortified himself with drink—the more potent, the better.

Dalmore 1973 Gonzales Byass Sherry Cask Finish
A vigorous alliance of malt aged in a grand cuvée sherry cask, resulting in a dark brew of cocoa, coffee, tobacco, and pepper—you will taste nothing else. ($135)

Talisker 25 Year Old
One of the chief distinctions of this special edition malt whisky is that it is bottled at cask strength, preserving its dark, briny, and quite savory aroma and taste. ($250)

Highland Park 25 Year Old Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky
This intense single malt has all of the complex flavors of a Christmas pudding—raisins, caramel, brown sugar, and citrus rind, tempered by salt and peat. ($195)

Cups Of Good Cheer
The 20th-century American psychiatric pioneer Karl A. Menninger once wrote, “There is much to indicate that in our civilization alcohol has a very useful function to perform and may be a source of increased happiness and decreased hostilities.” If this is true of strong drink in general, then surely the warming drafts that follow have a particular power to pacify. Certain beverages, once administered, are prone to induce in even the most recalcitrant misanthropes a mood of conviviality, making them the perfect palliatives to pour on occasions when harmonious relations are most desired.

Gran Centenario Añejo Tequila
The choice of fine tequilas, even among friends, can lead to hostilities; this caramel-scented, honey-flavored, well-toasted nectar from the agave will end any Mexican standoff. ($60)

Knappogue Castle 1994 Irish Whiskey
No people on the face of the earth are better versed in the finer points of camaraderie than the Irish—a fact that their genial whiskeys underscore. The 1994 vintage of Knappogue Castle, despite its age, is as fresh as the Irish countryside. ($35)

 

Wild Turkey Rare Breed
A bird of a different feather altogether from Wild Turkey 101, this small-batch bourbon boasts barrels ranging from 6 to 12 years of age. At 109 to 112 proof, Rare Breed is an icebreaker indeed. ($40)

 

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Blended Scotch Whisky
This elegant lavender-laced and lightly spiced re-creation of a 19th-century blend has withstood the test of time—a virtue that makes it the ideal medium for celebrating a friendship that has survived a similar test. ($180)

Chivas Regal 18 Year Old
A welcoming cornucopia of flavors—including heather, anise, and dried apricots—this 18-year-old malt will serve as the hallmark of hospitality for any host. ($55)

Ultimat Vodka
Unlike so many lesser vodkas—which impart few, if any, impressions—this exceptionally pure distillation of potatoes, rye, and wheat has a thick, velvety texture that, when chilled, cloaks and cossets the palate. ($58)

 

More Than They Deserve
Othello had Iago, Achilles had Hector, and Road Runner had Wile E. Coyote. Sadly, not all relationships achieve the state of unfettered accord toward which we all conscientiously strive. Despite our most noble gestures and stainless motives, few if any of us can travel life’s path untouched by the shadow of Nemesis. Whether an unruly CFO, an intractable business partner, or a neighbor whose private herd of pet llamas conducts repeated sorties onto your immaculately landscaped property, each of us has at least one strained relationship that an act of generosity could ease. The following are infallible white flags of truce that the second party (excepting, of course, the unruly CFO) might even share with you.

The Macallan 1952
Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president, the United States detonated the first hydrogen bomb, McCarthy pursued his clandestine communists, and the Cold War was under way. Perhaps the world would have become a friendlier place if Stalin and Ike had shared this bottle. ($3,000)

Bowmore 25 Year Old Single Malt
Though no one can say it cheats us of the sea brine we expect from Islay, among its brethren, the Bowmore exhibits a soothing refinement that nicely reconciles its flavor contrasts. ($200)

Dewar’s Signature
This democratic whisky combines single malts from every distilling region of Scotland, producing a rich composition of honey, vanilla, and cedar. Democracy gives way to plutocracy, however, in the quantity of bottles produced, which number a mere 1,000. ($200)

Chivas Regal Royal Salute 21 Year Old
This blend of single malts aged 21 years or longer in specially selected oak barrels was produced to commemorate the coronation of Elizabeth II and, as such, will serve well for all stately occasions. ($180)

Delamain Très Vénérable Grande Champagne Cognac
While some cognacs favor a pyrotechnic flavor profile, this cerebral eau-de-vie favors subtle, subdued spices and a mellow character. ($240)

San Matias Rey Sol
No salt or lime required here—this polished tequila should be sipped quietly from a snifter, so that one can contemplate its delicate composition of apples and anise. ($350)

Gran Patron Platinum Tequila
Only this handmade and etched crystal bottle of triple-distilled tequila will do when the truly personal touch is required. ($270)

Cordially Yours
The most rewarding component of a fine meal is the postprandial pleasure of selecting the appropriate cordial to follow. While one may enumerate the many purposes of this time-honored tradition—as digestive and conversational aids, for instance—the cognoscenti know that its primary function is to clear the palate for further drinking. An exhaustive list of the options would fill volumes; this handful of classics, however, should satisfy all tastes.

 

Hennessy Paradis Extra
Extracted from the private cellar of Richard Hennessy, established in the 18th century, this heavenly cognac offers tasters a veritable Garden of Eden, filled with pepper, cinnamon spice, roses, and jasmine. ($330)

Delamain Vesper Grande Champagne Cognac
A dessert unto itself, this beautiful, balanced, bronze-colored brandy exudes rich creamy vanilla, brown sugar, and a hint of bitter orange. ($125)

Pernod Spiritueux Anise
Before or after a meal, this emerald elixir will stimulate the senses. Intensely herbal with a sweet licorice and lemon character, it will be best enjoyed when diluted with cold water. ($25)

Grand Marnier Cuvée Spéciale 1827–1977 Cent Cinquantenaire Liqueur
This more regal take on the classic liqueur was created in 1977 to celebrate the founding of the company in 1827 by Jean-Baptiste Lapostolle. Its exotic marmalade character fuses a special selection of rare cognacs, some aged up to 50 years. ($215)

Ron Zacapa Centenario Rum 23 Years
Never to be brought within 100 yards of a glass of Coke, this fine rum’s rich spice, full body, and chocolate-molasses flavor will marry nicely with an after-dinner maduro. ($40)

Where Mere Mortals Fear to Tread
Even the gods must eat—or drink, as the case may be. So the Greeks believed. Ambrosia, the mysterious food of the Olympians, appears throughout the myths of Greece’s Golden Age and continues to spark debate among scholars, many of whom believe that the divine victual was in some way derived from honey. However, the chosen few of us who have sipped any of these celestial infusions understand that the origins of ambrosia no doubt had more in common with the still than the hive.

Hennessy Richard Hennessy Cognac
A mélange of hundreds of eaux-de-vie, some of which are nearly 200 years old and predate the phylloxera epidemic of 1870, this cognac does indeed capture history in a bottle. ($1,800)

The Glenlivet 1964
Once tasted, this cask-strength vintage single malt carries one off on eternal waves of shifting flavors—rum cake, dried fruit, plum, cloves, and cinnamon. ($2,000)

 

The Macallan Fine Oak 21 Year Old Single Malt
An esteemed light amber whisky with a deep, rich vanilla nose as thick as cake batter and a palate of ripe melon, orange, peat, and gentle wood. ($220)

Del Maguey 1999 Pechuga Single Village Mezcal
This immortal mescal unfolds like the blades of the agave plant itself, in an array of flavors including berry, roasted nuts, and chili peppers. ($200)

Neophyte’s Delight
The mark of the expert host will always be his or her ability to judge a guest’s particular threshold, whether it be a tolerance for certain overpowering colognes and tepid conversation, or an intolerance for eccentric liquor. This accessible selection of spirits provides a safe haven for guests with more taste than a taste for adventure.

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
A lush and soft bourbon with no rough edges, but instead an elegant medley of caramel, almonds, and a hint of rye. ($30)

 Tormore 12 Year Old
Tormore is perhaps the cleanest-drinking Scotch malt whisky on the market, offering a delicate blend of anise, orange, and lemon, alongside gentle spice. ($43)

 

Wyborowa Vodka
As fluid and balanced in flavor as the Frank Gehry–designed bottle in which it is sold, this new Polish rye-based vodka comes as close as a spirit can to going au naturel. ($18)

Boru Vodka
This quadruple-distilled vodka is as cool and bracing as the Irish spring water from which it is made. ($28)

Asom Broso Añejo
This recipe—which the conquistadors purportedly stole from the Aztecs in the 1500s—was recently excavated from an archeological dig in California and reproduced. Though Asom Broso’s rarity may not recommend it for consumption by beginners, its mellow caramel-spice flavor makes it the smoothest tequila this side of the border. ($240)

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