Feature: Holiday Essentials
Spirits are called spirits precisely because they capture essences, and in doing so they enable us to gain a greater appreciation—and enjoyment—of the sources from which they derive. Brandy is the essence of grapes, and it expresses that fruit better than wine does. Whiskey is the distillation of grain or corn, cereals that have been human staples for millennia. Rum captures the spirit of sugarcane and can transport us to another time and place, and tequila pays tribute to the Mayan agave gods and goddesses. Vodka may well represent the essence of alcohol itself.
What better time to take stock of the new and classic spirits—items ideal for giving or for your own inner enrichment—than on the eve of the holiday season? This is the time each year when we heartily embrace earthly pleasures while also pausing to consider the fortune that has brought us what we have, and to contemplate what the new year will bring. This is the essence of the season.
If Scotch did not exist, we would note its absence and be compelled to invent it. Fortunately, the Scots felt that compulsion centuries ago, leaving us present-day whisky drinkers to delight in the partaking rather than the making of the stuff. Whether you are looking for a magnificent single malt, a complex blend of malts, or a superbly blended marriage of malts and grain whiskies, you will find something from the following selection to set your kilt twirling.
Bowmore 37 Year Old Islay Single Malt 1968
Aged entirely in ex-bourbon barrels, the 37-year-old beauty shows the extraordinary effect of wood and age on the signature Islay peat profile, delivering candied fruit and notes of fresh mango and grapefruit, as well as an ample spice component. Bowmore produced only 708 bottles of this precious whisky. ($1,300)
The Glenlivet Single Malt 1969
If you are of a certain age, you might have been listening to Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock when this malt was being distilled. Since those days, music either has progressed or regressed—depending on your taste—from rock to rap, while this whisky was aging peacefully through it all. Its nose of toasted wood segues into sweet vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, and crème brûlée, with subtle notes of smoke, hickory, and peat. This classic Speyside Scotch is creamy and complex, with finesse and regal style. ($750)
The Macallan 1976 Fine & Rare Single Malt
First appreciate the dark amber color and then nose the deep, smoky, and spicy aromas of rich forest floor and Christmas tree. Finally, take the plunge into almost unending flavors of toast, molasses, smoke, vanilla, caramel, crème anglaise, dried peach, sugarplum, and toasted nuts. This is a sublime Scotch. ($1,500)
Duncan Taylor Auld Blended Aged 38 Years
With 3,000 barrels in inventory, Duncan Taylor controls one of the last of the great old stores of Scotch. This long and extraordinary vatted malt incorporates whiskies from single casks laid down during the 1960s and blended in the early 1980s. Explosive out of the glass, with notes of toast, spice, molasses, treacle, and crème anglaise, it shows power, finesse, and amazing length. ($183)
Johnnie Walker Blue Label "King George V"
This special edition of Johnnie Walker’s top-shelf Blue Label includes only whiskies from distilleries open during the 1910–1936 reign of England’s George V; like Islay’s Port Ellen, many of them have since closed. The release also commemorates the 1934 warrant granted to Johnnie Walker to provide whisky to the Royal Household. The spirit is a regal achievement indeed. ($600)
North American whiskey has come a long way since the days of the spry Scots-Irish moonshiners, who churned out high-test hooch while staying one holler removed from the nearest revenuer. But that tradition continues to influence today’s domestic spirits. Corn-derived bourbon has become ever more sophisticated, while retaining its Appalachian roots. Meanwhile, adventuresome distillers have delved into America’s spirited past to re-create whiskeys based on rye and wheat. Canada, too, has begun looking beyond its blended staples to offer single malts and other upscale whiskeys.
George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon
This excellent 15-year-old bourbon is made at the celebrated Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., which also is the source of bourbons from several other excellent brands. Bottled cask-strength, uncut and unfiltered, at a whopping 140 proof, the whiskey is rich and sultry, with hints of mushroom and earth. ($55)
Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye
The signature New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac, originally was made with Cognac, a staple in the French-colonial city. Thomas Handy changed that recipe in the 1870s, when he became proprietor of the popular Sazerac Coffeehouse (read: bar). Cognac was in short supply, and Americans preferred local spirits, so Handy used rye in his Sazerac. This modern-day rye is a fitting tribute to Handy, with flavors of spice and a powerful finish. ($55)
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
This 101-proof bourbon is bottled from individual barrels that were selected for their exceptional fullness and richness by Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell. Initially spicy and clean on the palate, the whiskey is loaded with luscious but balanced flavors. Each handwritten label bears the barrel number, bottling date, and warehouse number. This is one of America’s great spirits. ($50)
Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey
Made at Heaven Hill’s 19th-century Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, Ky., this long, edgy, and flavorful spirit probably is the first wheat-based American whiskey to appear since the end of Prohibition. It shows lovely aromatics, toasty oak, and rich flavors, and makes a unique and valuable addition to any bar. ($40)
Crown Royal Cask No. 16
This recently released Canadian blend contains more than 50 individually produced and aged whiskeys that were finished in Limousin oak Cognac casks. The marriage of Canadian whiskey and Cognac is a brilliant concept, masterfully executed here to produce a spirit with deep white-fruit components overlaid with nutlike tones. ($100)
Vodkas are spirits in their purest, most unadulterated state. No wonder much vodka advertising draws on the minimalist nature of the beast. Paradoxically, vodka is both the easiest and the most difficult spirit to evaluate. The product’s purity gives the eye, the nose, and the palate much less to deal with than does, say, bourbon. However, differentiating one vodka from another can be an exercise in discerning the most subtle nuances. Here are a few that deserve close attention.
Diamond 100 Vodka
The "100" in the name does not indicate the spirit’s alcohol content—it is 80 proof. Instead, the number references the number of times that this Oregon-made vodka from Bendistillery is filtered—through various combinations of charcoal, crushed lava, and new American oak. All that filtering produces an extraordinary purity. Amazingly velvety and smooth, the vodka boasts showy notes of vanilla and absolutely no rough edges. ($60)
The makers of this spirit from Poland tout it as the re-creation of a legendary vodka first distilled for 17th-century Polish royals by Sendivogius, court alchemist to Sigismund III. The name refers to the courtiers’ footless drinking glass that, once filled, could not be put down until its contents were consumed. Given the quality of this suave, dry, triple-distilled vodka—with its earth and spice notes—that could not have been too great a burden for those courtiers. The lovely swan-necked bottle makes this vodka a superb gift. ($50)
Absolut 100 Vodka
Sweden’s state-owned Vin & Sprit enjoys a perennial hit with Absolut, having sold more than a billion bottles since the vodka’s introduction to the United States in 1979. But that success has not stopped the company from forging new brands such as the upscale Level Vodka and, this year, Absolut 100, a higher-proof version of the original. Silky and smooth with luscious, sweet, creamy flavors, Absolut 100 shows its power but maintains its poise at all times. ($30)
Brian Boru, the 11th-century king of Ireland, was long ago elevated to legendary status as the ruler who drove the Danes from Ireland at the Battle of Clontarf. The true story is somewhat more complicated, because it takes into consideration that the offending Vikings actually had assimilated into Irish society generations earlier. Nevertheless, Boru’s namesake vodka is an unqualified triumph with its mellow vanilla nose, dense texture, and sweet vanilla flavors. ($20)
This spirit—created (along with its lesser sibling, Russian Standard) by billionaire entrepreneur Roustam Tariko and distilled in his new $60 million environmentally friendly, state-of-the-art facility in St. Petersburg—has become a reference Russian vodka for the millennium. Eight times distilled, Imperia has a lush, creamy texture that delivers clean, ripe vanilla flavors and a long, fresh finish. The bottle, with its bold red elements, will make quite a statement on any bar. ($30)
FLAVORS OF THE DAY
The current vogue of vodkas flavored with everything from apples to wasabi (perhaps yohimbe and zucchini are next?) has created the illusion that before 1995, all vodka was the colorless, odorless, and tasteless liquid that the U.S. government purports it to be. Not only is the official definition of vodka misleading—vodkas certainly have odor and taste—but one type of flavored vodka also has been around for centuries: It is called gin (or, in Scandinavia, aquavit). Dr. Sylvius, the 17th-century Dutch physician who invented gin as a medicinal remedy, would have approved of this roster of modern concoctions. They take flavored eaux-de-vie to new and exciting places.
This elegant and quite contemporary new spirit from the Netherlands smudges the already faint line that divides juniper-driven gin from other flavored vodkas. Clean and smooth, with subtle herb flavors and a hint of vanilla, it has silky texture and long, mellow flavors. ($25)
Grey Goose La Poire
Velvety texture, lovely pear aromas, and subtle pear flavors mark this elegant addition to the Grey Goose line. Made from the Anjou pear, known in France as the Beurre d’Anjou for its buttery texture, La Poire shows beautifully over ice or in restrained cocktails such as—what else?—the peartini. ($35)
Charbay Meyer Lemon Flavored Vodka
The members of Napa Valley’s Yugoslavian-American Karakasevic family have been preceded by a dozen generations of distillers, yet they are not adverse to experimentation. This spirit is one of many crafted under the Charbay label. Its strong, spicy, and astringent Meyer lemon flavor is powerful and shows great authenticity. ($40)
G’Vine Floraison Gin de France
This unusual small-batch gin is made in the Cognac region of France from a base of Ugni Blanc grapes—the same variety used in Cognac’s famed brandies. Soft and mellow, G’Vine exhibits lovely herbs, spice, and (its not-so-secret component) essence of green grape flowers. The spirit makes a fresh and lively cocktail, but you may want to savor it on its own. ($38)
Cadenhead’s Old Raj
The exotic yellow tinge on this classic, 110-proof gin comes from a measure of saffron, the world’s costliest spice, which the company’s very hands-on chairman adds to the still. Dry and spicy, with firm structure and great length, Old Raj has imperial bearing—a throwback to the days when gentlemen wore pith helmets, drank gin with lunch, and brooked no nonsense. ($60)
On his second voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus planted several hundred sugarcane shoots on the island of Hispaniola, marking the inception of the sugar industry in the Caribbean. Distillation techniques eventually were applied to the industry’s by-product, molasses, and the result was called rum—from rumbullion, a Devonshire word denoting an uproar. Rum never completely has abandoned its uproarious roots, but some expressions of this cane-based spirit can be as sophisticated and clubbable as any Cognac or Scotch. We call those the sipping rums.
Pampero Aniversario Rum
This Venezuelan 80-proof rum displays a burnished amber color. The fragrant and toasty nose leads into sweet molasses, treacle, caramel, and spice tones of almost unbelievable depth. Long, dense, and exquisite, Pampero Aniversario easily could fetch several times its modest price. ($30)
Zaya Gran Reserva Rum
Layered and sophisticated, this luxurious Guatemalan spirit is made from estate-grown cane and distilled twice in copper pots. Aged for a minimum of 12 years, it shows integrated oak and amazing length. The beautiful bottle, with its neck wrapped in palm, is a showpiece. ($40)
Bambu White Rum
Just as blanco tequila best captures the flavor of agave, white rum shows the most intense sugarcane flavors. This dry, white, unaged rum was created by David Kanbar, nephew of Skyy Vodka developer Maurice Kanbar. Bambu is clean and crisp in the extreme, with edgy alcohol flavor and a smooth, pure essence of sugar. ($50)
Neisson Rhum Agricole Réserve Spéciale
French-Caribbean rhum agricole is rum made from fresh-pressed sugarcane instead of molasses. Like the finest French wines, these rums are entitled to their own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. This version from Martinique is among the best, with sweet treacle and glorious spice. ($65)
Clément XO Extra-Aged Rum
Clément is the most renowned producer of rhum agricole, with a history on Martinique dating to 1887. The rums are available once again after an absence from the American market. The XO melds vintage rums—the oldest is from 1952—with newer spirits for a complex blend. ($135)
GODS OF AGAVE
No spirit is more primal than tequila—a liquor that seems to generate a certain energy field whenever it is poured. Perhaps that aura derives from the spirit’s mythical past. These tequilas occupy a higher level than those that lubricate spring-break shenanigans, but they still retain the excitement that is elemental to tequila.
Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia 2007
The Cuervo family’s private reserve tequila has been made available in limited editions since the brand’s 200th anniversary, in 1995. Each year, Cuervo commissions a Mexican artist to create a box that will house this special spirit and its wax-sealed bottle. Medium amber in color, this year’s Reserva de la Familia exhibits toasty caramel and other luscious flavors. ($100)
The recently released Elegante is a fitting jewel in the crown for the Partida line of ultrapremium tequilas. It is also one of the first releases of an Extra Añejo, a new official designation for tequilas aged more than three years. ($350)
Gran Patrón Burdeos
This is the halo tequila in the Patrón portfolio. Master distiller Francisco Alcaráz ages Burdeos in French and American oak, before it is redistilled and then racked in vintage barrels from Château Margaux. The result is a sublime ménage à trois among agave, oak, and premier cru Bordeaux. ($500)
Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Reposado
The Milagro tequilas are made at the Tequilera Cielito Lindo and are triple distilled. The Select Barrel Reserve line is the distillery’s flagship spirit. The stunning Reposado delivers beautiful oak highlights while retaining juicy agave flavors. It is a masterpiece of the tequila-maker’s art. ($75)
Rock star Sammy Hagar sold his Cabo Wabo tequila brand to Skyy Spirits earlier this year, just as Cabo Uno, an intense yet elegant top-of-the-line reserva, appeared on the scene. Lovely agave fruit, vanilla, caramel, and spice play around toasty oak in this showstopper. ($250)
A CLASS APART
If spirits were English automobiles, brandies would be Rolls-Royces. Built to last and powered to impress, brandies are neither as racy as gins (Triumphs, perhaps?) nor as idiosyncratic as single-malt Scotches (Aston Martins, surely). These aristocratic distillates constitute an elite class and are as impervious to the whims of fad and fashion as is a lord being chauffered to Parliament in his Silver Seraph.
Hennessy Richard Hennessy Cognac
The Richard Hennessy blend, an homage to the company’s founder, is assembled from the Cognac house’s extensive collections of distillates, some of which date to the 19th century. The spirit has a dense, almost unctuous feel in the mouth, with sweet fruit, complex spice, and rich, toasty wood flavors. The gorgeous crystal decanter is fitted with silver and etched with a garland of vines. ($1,800)
Courvoisier Initiale Extra Cognac
The Cognacs of Emmanuel Courvoisier and his partner, Louis Gallois, reportedly were favorites of Napoléon Bonaparte, although Courvoisier was not actually established as a brand until 1843, two decades after the emperor’s death. Initiale Extra, a blend of eaux-de-vie from the Grande Champagne and Borderies, is a superb representative of the Courvoisier style. ($291)
Pierre Ferrand Ancestrale
Ferrand maintains a lower profile than do some other Cognac houses, but it is well worth becoming acquainted with these beautifully made brandies. Extremely long and seamless, this impressive reserve shows great complexity and seductive sweet oak, with candied stone fruit, dark chocolate, and leather. ($900)
Germain-Robin Viognier Brandy
Working from Ansley Coale’s Mendocino County ranch, and using California grapes as a base, Hubert Germain-Robin has been crafting what may be the New World’s most impressive brandies for the past two decades. This richly textured, single-varietal version, aged 13 years in Limousin oak, carries delicious notes of tobacco and herbs. ($140)
Château de Laubade Intemporel Bas-Armagnac
Armagnac, a single-distilled spirit, is the brawnier, more rustic cousin of Cognac. Château de Laubade is the largest property in the region, and all its brandies are estate-grown by the Lesgourgues family. Muscular, supple, and intriguingly complex, Intemporel is, as its name suggests, timeless. ($150)
Liqueurs and aperitifs originated from medieval alchemy, as sweet cures for melancholia, bitter stimulants for digestion, fateful love potions, and wonder-working elixirs of long life. These spirits make less ambitious claims today, and they work their magic in a much subtler fashion, but they still have the power to captivate and delight.
Canton Ginger and Cognac Liqueur
Based on a recipe from French-colonial Indochina, this new liqueur is made from VSOP Grande Champagne Cognac and rare baby ginger from Southeast Asia. The spirit, packaged in an elegant, satin-textured bottle that suggests a bamboo stalk, also incorporates Tunisian ginseng, Tahitian vanilla, and a touch of orange-blossom honey. ($30)
This venerable monastic herbal liqueur is made from 130 different herbs, plants, and flowers. The secret recipe was formulated in 1605, and the spirit was first sold publicly in 1735. The complex, spicy nose and dense texture lead to a palate that is hot but incredibly mellow, with sweet, complex herbal flavors: mint, licorice, vanilla, cardamom, pine, lime, and quince. ($43)
Cointreau Orange Liqueur
Nineteenth-century distiller Edouard Cointreau experimented with wild Caribbean bitter orange peels mixed with sweet oranges and eventually came upon the formula for the dry, double-distilled liqueur now known as triple sec. Cointreau’s fragrant orange, orange peel, and spice flavors are nearly irresistible alone and required in a margarita. ($35)
Amber Liqueur by The Macallan
You would expect this new liqueur to be as compelling as the Macallan on which it is based—and you would not be disappointed. The maple and pecan notes harmonize gloriously with the sherried tones of the whisky. ($35)
In 1860, Gaspare Campari introduced a new drink to patrons of his Milan café, and it was an immediate success. The crimson aperitif still is made according to the original formula, using herbs and fruits from four continents for a taste that is soft, sweet, and pleasantly bitter. ($22)