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Host’s Guide Holiday 2012: Spirits of Giving

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Former illicit Highland whisky makers and Appalachian bootleggers notwithstanding, distillation is a refined art form. This holiday season, master distillers have raised their age-old craft to new heights of perfection with spirits that are a joy to give and to receive. Following are our selections of the most refined and refreshing pours for the connoisseurs on your gift list.

Leóna Reserva Tequila

Just in time for the Mayans’ alleged prediction of the end of the world, this latest expression of DeLeón tequila was specifically created for the occasion. “Legend has it the Mayans created a special elixir for the final night of civilization,” says Brent Hocking, the superpremium tequila’s founder and CEO. “We believe it was called Leóna—my take on a feminine version of DeLeón.”

Matured in Chateau d’Yquem barrels for 34 months—just two months shy of the time required to become an extra-añejo—this limited-edition, bronze-hued “añejo-plus” tequila possesses a texture more akin to an XO Cognac, brimming with burnt orange peels, cherries, and a hint of rose petals. Encased in a black presentation box and packaged with a flask sheathed in python skin, Leóna will officially be launched on December 21, 2012—the potentially cataclysmic end-date of one cycle of the Mayan calendar. Even so, those enjoying this tequila will find its beauty timeless. ($825)

Camus Extra Elegance

This hors d’age Cognac is produced by one of the last family-owned distilleries in France and is blended with eaux-de-vie ranging in age from 30 to 50 years. As such, it is the most elegant Cognac yet produced by the House of Camus during its 149-year history. The deep, burnished-gold color and pungent floral bouquet of Extra Elegance are but preludes to the rich, dominant flavors of its Borderies wines, which are enhanced by Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. Cedar, tobacco, dried violets, and leather fill the mouth and linger long after the last sip. Yet for all the complexity of its flavor profile, the minimalist crystal decanter bears no markings other than the words Extra Cognac, which are embossed on its matte metallic-silver neckband. However, there is a soft cloth included in its mirrored display case to wipe off fingerprints, so that one may literally reflect on a Cognac that does indeed live up to its name. ($1,000/1.75 L)

Plantation Rum Guadeloupe Vintage 1998

Were it not for the fact that this rhum agricole–style spirit is a product of Cognac Ferrand—one of Europe’s pioneers in the artisanal-spirits movement—one might be surprised to discover that it comes from France. But after 11 years of aging in French oak barrels in Guadeloupe, this distillation of pressed sugar cane (the only Plantation rum not made from molasses) is shipped to Cognac Ferrand’s Chateau de Bonbonnet in Ars, where it is finished for another 12 months in previously used Cognac casks. The result is a mélange of lemon, charred cedar, and fresh rain-forest nuances. Only 600 bottles have been sent to the United States. ($65)

Lark Tasmanian Single-Malt Whiskies

Before Bill Lark opened Lark Distillery in 1992, whisky had not been produced in Australia’s southernmost state for over 150 years. Now, these Tassie single malts are available in America for the first time. Made with malted Tasmanian-grown Franklin barley that has been dried with peat from Brown Marsh Bog, these single-cask malt whiskies are double pot distilled, non-chill filtered, and aged at least five years in Port barrels. Currently, three single malts are available: Lark Single Cask at 86 proof, a sweet, honeyed, floral whisky with a trace of Speyside characteristics; Lark Distillers Selection at 92 proof, a more robust example that offers sherry notes intermingled with ones of oak, honey, and toffee; and Lark Cask Strength, bottled at 116 proof and laden with heavy tones of cedar, citrus, butterscotch, and marzipan. These are the perfect pours for the malt-whisky aficionado seeking to up the ante among fellow connoisseurs this holiday season. ($150/Single Cask; $180/Distillers Selection; $220/Cask Strength)

Highland Park Thor

Highland Park, located in the Orkney Islands, was once a favorite Viking haunt. Now Scotland’s northernmost distillery is paying tribute to its Nordic heritage with Thor, a 16-year-old cask-strength single malt named after the Norse god who, according to myth, wielded his mighty hammer, Mjölnir, to hew the rugged cliffs of Yesnaby on the island’s far western shores. This is the first of Highland Park’s Valhalla Collection, which comprises four unique whiskies to be released in successive years. At 104.2 proof, Thor comes thundering out of the bottle with unchained alcoholic power, but it is easily tamed with a splash of distilled water, which reveals meaty yet manageable notes of butterscotch, vanilla, and Orkney’s signature floral peaty smoke. Of 23,000 bottles worldwide, only 1,500 will arrive in the United States. ($199)

Aviation Gin

This pot-still-infused spirit hails from Portland, Oregon, and reflects a modern style of gin known as American Dry, which features the thick, creamy mouthfeel of many English gins yet introduces a spicy-sweet complexity resulting from the addition of unique botanicals such as lavender and Indian sarsaparilla. This 84-proof full-bodied gin invites one to go beyond the standard martini and venture into the realm of such retro cocktails as the Aviation, an early-20th-century drink that called for a mixture of gin, maraschino liqueur, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and crème de violette liqueur. Fittingly, the cocktail was the inspiration for this new gin’s name. ($29)

High West Campfire Whiskey

A long aging process and high amount of char in the oak barrels leaves many bourbons with a trace of smoke in their flavor. This mere suggestion, however, is nothing compared to the waft of sweet smoke one finds in Campfire, a unique and aptly named combination of American and Scottish spirits. This relatively young whiskey from Old Town Park City, Utah, possesses the unmistakable iodine-laced accents of an island Scotch, thanks to the addition of a blended malt whiskey to a combination of straight bourbon and straight rye whiskey. The flavors of this smoke-tinged bourbon-rye-Scotch blend linger long after the last swallow—much like the glowing embers of, well, a campfire. ($60)

Karlsson’s Vodka Batch 2008

The award-winning small-batch artisanal Karlsson’s Gold is composed of seven individually distilled varieties of Virgin New Potatoes, a high-dollar crop from the Cape Bjäre peninsula in southwestern Sweden. These spirits are then blended in varying proportions (as each year’s harvest is different) by master blender Börje Karlsson to maintain a consistent taste for Karlsson’s Gold, just as single malts are combined to produce a consistent blended Scotch. Now Karlsson has selected one of these varietals, the Gammelsvensk Röd, to create what can best be described as a single-varietal potato-vodka eau-de-vie. Like grappa in taste and texture, and slightly briny, this single-distilled vodka is best served neat and chilled, preferably in a Riedel Vinum XL aquavit glass. Only 1,980 signed and numbered bottles have been produced. If you missed this one, Batch 2009—the second in the series, made from a single distillation of the sweeter Solist varietal—is now being released. ($80)

Knob Creek Rye

It takes a very special blend to garner a Double Gold Medal in its premiere outing at a blind tasting by 33 judges at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, but that is exactly what Knob Creek Rye did earlier this year. Knob Creek Bourbon was one of the original four small-batch bourbons by Jim Beam; the newest addition to the brand’s portfolio, this 100-proof herbaceous and spicy rye whiskey, is already on the back bar of some of the top mixologists in the country. ($41)

Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon

This is one of the latest releases in a series of limited-quantity bottlings. Four Roses Distillery master distiller Jim Rutledge personally selected this 12-year-old bourbon from among 10 different recipes. It is uncut and unfiltered, and ranges from 100.6 to 114.4 proof (depending on the barrel). Only 3,600 bottles are available. ($90)

The Dalmore 1967

Most single-malt whiskies are aged in barrels that formerly contained either bourbon or sherry, or a combination of both, but this rarity—part of an extremely limited offering known as the Sirius Collection—was aged for 44 years in Caribbean rum barrels. Distilled on February 24, 1967, and bottled at the end of 2011, this 128.6-proof cask-strength whisky filled just 89 bottles after evaporation removed the “angel’s share” during aging. Dark and thick with flavors of molasses, chocolate, and candied dried fruit, the whisky exhibits the signature Dalmore undercurrent of marmalade. ($5,700)

 

Woodford Reserve Rare Rye Selection 

This double set of 375 mL bottles marks the latest offering in Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris’ annual Master’s Collection series. Both bottles are filled with 100-percent aged rye whiskey from the same distillation. However, the colors and tastes of the spirits are remarkably different, due to the two different types of barrels in which they were aged. Thanks to a new American charred-oak barrel, the New Cask rye is copper-bronze in color and exhibits cherry, chocolate, and vanilla flavors. Used barrels similar to those employed in aging Scotch whisky, on the other hand, lend the Aged Cask bottling its pale-yellow color and softer, more floral flavor characteristics. These spirits dramatically demonstrate what a difference a barrel makes. ($100)

Casa Dragones Tequila

Created by Benjamin Garcia and Bertha González Nieves, the latter the first woman to receive the title of maestra tequilera from the Mexican Academy of Tequila, this super-premium, multidistilled blanco is made extra smooth by the addition of a minute amount of añejo that has been aged for slightly more than five years. As a result, this joven adds a notably spicy accent to an otherwise soft agave flavor. Put it in a margarita if you must, but as the signed and numbered label states, this tequila is meant for sipping. ($275)

Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey

From the world’s oldest operating distillery, this 250-year-old premium brand of Irish whiskey—named after the small town in which it is made—is finally available throughout the United States. Unlike most Irish whiskeys, which are triple distilled, Kilbeggan is double distilled, which heightens its otherwise gentle flavors of almond, peaches, and oak. Savored neat or with soda and ice, this 80-proof whiskey will ease you into the evening’s festivities. ($24)

E. H. Taylor, Jr. 100 Proof Straight Rye Whiskey 

Not for the faint of heart, this rollicking rye is reminiscent of what its namesake, Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr., distilled (and drank) over 100 years ago. Indeed, the great-nephew of President Zachary Taylor knew his whiskey and implemented many innovations—such as climate-controlled aging warehouses—that are still in use today. Made with rye and malted barley but without corn, this heavy pour brims with dark spices and caramel overtones. Try it in a Manhattan or on the rocks, and taste the history. ($70)

The Glenrothes Extraordinary Cask

Simply yet accurately named, The Glenrothes Extraordinary Cask is just that—extraordinary. Distilled on July 6, 1970, this whisky, endowed with hints of toffee, chocolate, and citrus, is in keeping with The Glenrothes’s philosophy of only bottling a single malt when it is at the peak of flavor, rather than striving for a specific number of years. The single cask from which the whisky was drawn, number 10573, was an ex-bourbon hogshead and yielded only 179 bottles, 50 of which have been allocated for the United States. The whisky itself is housed in a hand-blown leaded-crystal decanter mounted with an individually numbered brass plaque and contained in a handcrafted leather suitcase. The Extraordinary Cask is the first in The Glenrothes’s forthcoming series of single-cask bottlings of vintages from the late 1960s and early 1970s. ($5,000)

Glenfiddich 1974 Vintage Reserve

The latest offering from the Glenfiddich Rare Collection is the brand’s first vatted vintage whisky; previous editions have been single-cask bottlings. The manner in which this whisky was selected is as impressive as the spirit itself. Malt master Brian Kinsman gathered the 13 worldwide Glenfiddich brand ambassadors together at the distillery and had them nose and taste vintages from 1973, 1974, and 1975. After an enthusiastic two-hour discussion, the group unanimously agreed that the 1974 vintage was superior. Honeyed, somewhat creamy in texture, and with top notes of marzipan and sherry, this 93.6-proof cask-strength single malt, which was aged in bourbon and sherry barrels, clearly makes 1974 a vintage for special occasions. Of the 1,000 bottles available worldwide, just 36 have been allocated to the United States. ($800)

Great King Street—Artist’s Blend

From the talents of Compass Box boutique whisky maker John Glaser comes his latest innovation, Great King Street whiskies, whose name is inspired by the firm’s Edinburgh address. The initial offering in this series devoted to blended scotch is Artist’s Blend, a unique melding of delicate Lowland grain whiskies and robust, complex Highland and Speyside single malts. Clynelish furnishes the core Highland flavor, while Dailuaine is responsible for much of the Speyside influence. The aging process took place in a combination of American and French oak barrels, as well as in a smaller percentage of sherry butts, and yielded gentle notes of baked apples, honey, cherries, and toasted oak. ($45/750 mL)

Grand Marnier Cherry 

Few fruits are as festive as oranges and cherries, and both are intoxicatingly combined in this rich and rewarding liqueur, which is available from the House of Marnier-Lapostolle for a limited time during this year’s holiday season. Here, Grand Marnier’s premium Cognacs are laced with their signature maceration of bitter orange peel and the natural sweet flavor of European griotte cherries. The result is a slightly charred citrus essence with a blanket of wild cherries and a touch of appropriately seasonal sloe berries. Tailor-made for a snifter, it also works well with a splash of soda—or as an enticing enhancement to a vodka martini. ($42)

Russian Standard Gold Vodka

This vodka maker continues the tradition of honoring Dmitri Mendeleev’s classic 1894 recipe, which has made it a best-seller in Russia. Its name references the carefully selected Siberian golden root (extracts of ginseng) used in its production; the result is a soft, slightly herbal pour with a hint of spice in the finish. Keep a bottle in the freezer to serve superior impromptu cocktails to guests who unexpectedly drop in. ($45)

Parker’s Heritage Collection Master Distiller’s Blend of Mashbills

The sixth and newest edition of Parker’s Heritage Collection is arguably the most ambitious yet for Heaven Hills’ Parker Beam—who, fittingly, is the Beam family’s sixth-generation co–master distiller (son Craig is the seventh). For this presentation, Parker has taken a selection of 11-year-old wheated and rye-based bourbons, many of them used for such stalwarts as Old Fitzgerald and Evan Williams, and blended them to create a non-chill-filtered 131.6-proof limited release of 7,500 bottles. This powerhouse bourbon demands a hearty splash of distilled water to appreciate its true finesse. ($80)

Cruz del Sol Tequila

Better known for its wines, Trinchero Family Estates is now importing this unique tequila produced by three Arizona State University graduates who decided that, rather than continuing their search for the perfect tequila, they would travel to Jalisco and make their own. Blue agaves, slowly steamed in traditional hornos (brick ovens) for two days, and a proprietary distillation process result in a sweet, floral Silver and a slightly spicy but delicate Reposado. ($45/Silver; $53/Reposado) 

Crown Royal XR

This latest addition in Crown Royal’s Extra Rare Whisky Series—only the brand’s second XR edition—is composed of whiskeys from its storied past. The first offering, released in 2006, included whiskeys from Crown Royal’s old Waterloo distillery, which burned down in 1993. But now, whiskey lovers have a second chance to sip from the past. This newest presentation comprises specially selected whiskeys from the historic LaSalle Distillery in Quebec established by the Bronfman family, who originally created the Crown Royal brand to commemorate the 1939 grand tour of Canada by King George VI and Princess Elizabeth. The component whiskeys in this current blend were selected by Crown Royal master blender Andrew MacKay and therefore have a special significance, for MacKay once apprenticed at the LaSalle Distillery. Dried fruits and honey dominate on the palate, accented with spicy notes of rye, raisins, and brown sugar. ($130)

Mandarine Napoléon XO

In 1806, Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte met with Antoine-François de Fourcroy, a French chemist known for his extraordinary distilling skills. The purpose of their meeting was to create an exclusive Cognac-based liqueur for the emperor using mandarins from Sicily. The result was the sweet, citrus-laden Mandarine Napoléon, which was not made available to the public until 1892, well after both men had died. But in the early 1900s, a much more refined version was unveiled: Mandarine Napoléon XO. Today that superb digestif has been reintroduced by Royal Dutch Distillers, a subsidiary of family-owned De Kuyper Royal Distillers. Featuring 30-year-old Grand Champagne Cognac blended with a distillate crafted from macerated mandarin peels and 27 enriching herbs and spices, this XO reveals its ratio of two-thirds Cognac to one-third mandarin in prominent eau-de-vie top notes accented by a tingling burnt-citrus undertaste. Just 904 hand-blown, acid-etched bottles encased in black presentation boxes were produced in the first limited run. Ironically, Mandarine Napoléon XO is distilled in an abbey less than 30 miles from the battleground at Waterloo, where Napoléon suffered his last major defeat. ($350)

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