Okay, to come clean, here, I wanted this series to be a daily list of good gifting and drinking suggestions for your and your loved ones’ holiday cheer. This list is based on what I, personally, have tasted and can recommend. So this post is largely taken from past posts in The Pour Fool, from which I have reread tasting notes to make sure I still want to say that same thing. In a few cases, I’ve made changes, based on retastings. Whiskey, Run, stuff like that, DOES change in some ways, even though the distillers usually labor to make sure they’re consistent, batch to batch.
The reason for this approach is two fold: 1) I am lazy white trash, and 2) I’m busy and old and cranky and WHADDAYA WANT FROM ME, ANYWAY?!?
I’m sorry. I had a Moment, there.
It is also, more to the point, a way to get this info back in front of you as quickly as possible, so that this doesn’t get posted at 7 p.m..
ANYWAY, if you’re flush enough, and not a tight-fisted misanthrope like me, you CAN, absolutely give a genuinely magnificent bottle o’ hooch without straying into Bankruptcy Territory. Yeah, some of these are expen$ive but they’re going to light up whomever you give them to like a suit of ultra-bright LEDs. And that’s always the goal, isn’t it? To have them sputtering, practically speechless, like a caffeinated toddler?
Here, then, a List of KILLER Gifting Hooch, for yo’ Holiday Jollies…
(I wrote this review about four days after my Mother died.)
Laphroaig 18 Year Old is a deep, smoky, soulful glassful of complexity and Scottish atmosphere. Salt air almost literally blows through every sip. Rich treacle and burnt sugar notes start the flavors, followed by that irresistible smoke – like sipping Scotch next to a campfire – and grace notes of rosemary and vanilla and sea salt and an almost floral finish. I first tasted this, also, with my Mom – who was NOT a drinker, by the way – at her house in Maryland, during an evening-long discussion/argument about what I was planning to do after college. I poured about three ounces into a jelly glass and it lasted almost three hours – still my personal record for nursing a drink. I savored every drop and did the same thirty-nine years later, sitting in my living room, awash in recollection. Addition: I’ve found this online for everywhere from $75 to $140 to over $400. Comparison shopping will probably be required. 96 Points
(This is for all the Irish Whiskey geeks among us. Slàinte Mhaith.)
Barr an Uisce 1803 Single Malt Limited Edition 16 Year Old Irish Whiskey is a gorgeous amber elixir that appears to glow from within, in the glass, and emits a virtual cloud of aromatics that centers on vanilla and baked apples, butterscotch and caramel and pipe tobacco. It delivers all of that on the palate, plus emphatic notes of baking spices, tropical fruit, brandied apricots, coconut, and subtle woodsmoke. Compared to the rather austere, grainy, direct character of most Irish Whiskeys, this is almost hedonistic, as much a spiritual cousin to Kentucky Bourbon as to its Irish and Scottish cousins. It finishes crisp and clean and warms without becoming one of those “test of manhood” Whiskeys that may deliver the flavor but feel like sucking on a blowtorch. It checks in at a measured 46% ABV and is devilishly easy to drink. Caution is needed when drinking this, as it can easily put a grown man on his knees. And maybe not the normal caution used to approach any Whiskey, as this stuff, to me, doesn’t even come off as 46%. At about $80 a bottle (if you comparison shop), it ain’t cheap but it IS a great value, since you would pay a LOT more than that for a comparable Scotch. (Pronounced “bar-an-OOSH”, BTW.) Gonna run ya about $80. Shop HARD because this stuff is worth it. 99 Points
(The title above is “Brown Water”. That includes Rum. And this stuff is HARD to get, given AZ’s weird shipping laws, but TOTALLY worth the effort.)
Desert Diamond Distillery “Gold Miner” Dark Rum: This, for me, is the knock-out of the D3 line-up. This certainly is a Rum. Tastes like rum, smells like Rum, looks like Rum or what we all wish Rum tasted, smelled and looked like, every time. But it goes beyond that simplistic description. This feels and drinks like a very good bottle of top-shelf Bourbon Whiskey. Unlike with a lot of the everyday Rums we see on bar-backs and store shelves, Gold Miner Dark has a depth and richness and viscosity and complexity that gives it the gravitas of a luxury-tier Whiskey, making it problematic to even consider using it as a mere mixer. This stuff begs to be sipped slowly and meditatively, in front of a roaring fireplace, which is just about the opposite of the summer sun ‘n’ fun, Calypso Joe aura we attach to the concept of “Rum”. This elegant Dark has layers; strata of grace notes atop its core of wet oak and burnt sugar and roasted nuts and sweet spices. Along with its big brother, the 5-year old Reserve Rum, this 3-year old is not the coltish and under-realized potential that a 3 year-old Whiskey would be. This is grown up stuff, replete and polished and ready NOW. And it may just be the single best American Rum I have ever tasted. And it is only $32! Hell, the Reserve version is only $45. But you will never have to worry about your giftee reading the price, somewhere. I had to hunt for it on the website. 98 Points
(I’m a rather outspoken critic of flavored Whiskeys but that’s because most of ’em kinda, uh, suck. Done well, they can be Delicious. Cali is Delicious.)
With Cali California Whiskey, it’s possible, I guess, that nobody might be affected as I am by this stuff. Maybe native Californians will see it differently but, somehow, I kinda doubt it. The best pocket description I can give you for this innovative whiskey is “…vivid and spicy, sun-splashed liberally with colorful grace notes, and just different enough from anything you have ever tasted that even a complete novice to the task of analyzing beverages will immediately understand they have something on their tongue that hasn’t been there before”...If this is the future of what “California Whiskey” is going to be, the future is as rosy as that Malibu sunset and as colorful as a drive down Sunset Boulevard. Cali is delicacy and earthiness, poetry and plain-spoken eloquence; it’s California’s own John Steinbeck, who had the knack of great ideas in plain wrappings – “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ” – and it’s Jack London, a Californian who wrung poetry out of the mundane and commonplace but captured both life and his home state in his wide nets:
“I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because — well, just because it was easier to than not to.”
Cali California Whiskey came about because Howard and Marni Witkin Had To. And we are the beneficiaries of their wanderlust and refusal to live a life on “one same shift“. About $30. 98 Points
(Scotch…made in OREGON? Well, yeah…)
McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey is a bottle of Scotch. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not made in Scotland and it’s not legal to call it ”Scotch” and it’s made a little differently, using Oregon oak barrels…but let us stop right there for a second. Distiller Steve McCarthy’s barreling process starts with a relatively brief period in sherry barrels, which lends a complexity and flattering fruitiness that suffuses the whole profile. Is it different from actual Scotch? Yes…a bit. Stylistically, it leans more to Islay than Speyside or Highlands or Campbelltown or Lowlands but has a little more sweet floral/berry presence than you’ll find in Islay bottles. It smells as effusively sweet and caramel-tinged as a Bourbon but has a lovely and elusive note of something like warm blackberry compote that lurks in the background. On the tongue, its fleshy and mouth-coating but finishes light and lingering. And the complexity is off the charts. The smoke that elevates the nose and palate is in near-perfect balance with its grains and grace notes and doesn’t dominate, as smoke tends to do in many Islay Scotches, but flatters the whole….McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey – McCarthy even spells “whiskey” correctly, bless his crafty little heart – IS a bottle of fuggen Scotch. The feds and the state of Oregon may not be okay with that description and the Scots undoubtedly would have a wee complaint or two but I’m not running a distillery or trying to shove a label past the ATF. In any list I ever have of may yet produce of the best Scotches I’ve tasted, McCarthy’s would be in the top ten, easily, and closer to five than ten.
It’s gonna set ya back anywhere from $50 to nearing $70 but, as compared to the current price plateau for comparable Scottish Scotch, McCarthy’s is a slam-dunk bargain. 99 Points
(Lest we forget the Bourbon drinkers. This may just be the best under-appreciated bottle of Kentucky Bourbon available today. I know it is firmly in my Top Three)
John B. Stetson Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey more than lives up to the prestige of the family name that, for over 100 years, has meant the best hats made in the US. This is real, straight Kentucky Bourbon, beautifully made and soaked with an almost addictive caramel-driven sweetness that’s graced nicely by notes of toasted coconut, wet oak, vanilla, black pepper, toffee, cocoa powder, and meadow grass. The intensity is that of a FAR more expensive Whiskey and the finish is long, lingering, and pure. It is absolutely compulsive, finishing with soft caramel notes and subtle spices and almost begging for another sip…This is, in my book, a truly Fine bottle of American Bourbon and one worth a lot more than its modest sticker price would indicate. Just outstanding. The online prices for this are all over the map. Total Wine shows it for $60. I’ve seen it listed at LiquorBarn.com for $28. Shop diligently. 99 Points
(You’re NOT gonna find this on your local liquor shelves, so giving this is a slam-dunk surprise for your Bourbon connoisseur pal, provided that he/she does not have that broomstick up their ass about “great Bourbon is ONLY made in Kentucky”, which, trust me, is baloney, these days.)
The Steins Distillery 2 year aged “Big Buck” Blended Whiskey walked off with some serious Hardware at the World Whiskey Awards. It was only one of the awards that this small outfit in the tiny but heavenly town of Joseph, Oregon, has walked off with in the past half-decade’s booze competitions. Stein’s was just barreling this stuff when I walked in to taste in 2009. Austin Stein told me that, in its White Dog state, he thought it was really promising and I promised to try it as soon as it came out. I missed the release by a year but the wait was worth it. Big Buck won the Gold for Best American Whiskey Under 7 Years at the 2014 World Whiskey Awards and deserved to. This has a HUGE, gorgeous aroma of hazelnuts, oak, almonds and toast, with rye spice and a cinnamon sweetness that prettily frames white peaches, bitter orange, and hay on the finish. It’s complex and rich and rivaled only by two American Bourbons made outside Kentucky: High West and Breckenridge. They use all local, Wallowa County grains, much harvested from their own property. It’s round and smooth and has never yet worn out its welcome with my fickle palate. This is a stunning achievement in The American Whiskey and a rare bird that’s well worth the search. And out the door, from the distillery and selected retailers, it’s only $38.90 98 Points
(GREAT Whiskey from New York state? YES. Hillrock is rewriting a lot of the lore about American Whiskey and this ranks in with the very best I’ve tasted since starting The Pour Fool)
The first thing that caught my eye, after opening the enigmatic box from New York, was the Hillrock Estate Solera Aged Bourbon. Solera is a process – originated in the wine world – in which different vintages of whiskeys are blended with newer whiskeys and, figuring in reduction and wood effects, arrive at a deep, soulful, almost chewy texture and profoundly complex character. Almost no one in the US uses Solera method because it takes a lot of time, infinite patience, and immaculate skills, not the least of which is Knowing When To Quit…which David Pickerell seems to have mastered. This is a stunning Whiskey; in fact, the world’s first ever Solera-Aged Bourbon. The depth and intrigue contained in each tiny sip of this is mind-boggling. It is among the most purely hedonistic drinking experiences of my long life in the beverage trade. Bold, emphatic flavors of roasted nuts, fruitcake, Brandied raisins, figs, dates, grilled corn, baking spices, lavish oak, vanilla, and chewy rye suffuse every sip, and the texture is like liquid sin; slightly viscous and wickedly smoooooth. The only thing keeping this from standing toe-to-toe with the absolute finest Whiskeys ever made in America is its lack of widespread exposure, though, given the list of awards this stuff is piling up, that’s going to change SOON. It actually is THAT good. Found online for $78 to $115. 100 Points
(This list ends with the two best Scotches I have ever found. The first is by a very celebrated estate that has never stopped trying to top their own impossibly high standard and has done it often enough to know that it’s NOT just chance. And in this one, they outdid themselves)
Laphroaig “Lore” Islay Single Malt Scotch Whiskey is, in my opinion, one of the best bottles of Scotch ever made. No, I have not tasted all of them but I have tasted several hundred, in my time here on Earth, and Lore is unsurpassed by any I have ever experienced. My freakish sense memory being what it is, I remember the flavors of beers, wines, and whiskeys I tasted ten, twenty years ago. Name a Scotch and, if I’ve had it, I can probably tell you about it. In my opinion, this is equalled by only one Scotch currently on the market, for sheer, hedonistic drinking pleasure: The Balvenie “Caribbean Cask”. There is absolutely no similarity at all between Lore and Caribbean Cask except that they’re both from Scotland. Laphroaig is from Islay (eye-luh), that magical island from which whiskeys redolent of peat smoke and seaweed emanate. Laphroaig Distillery Manager, John Campbell, used a veritable Greatest Hits line-up of Laphroaig’s historic barrel program, blending in lots from first-fill wet Bourbon casks, virgin European oak, first-fill Oloroso Sherry butts, first-fill and refill quarter casks, and refill ex-Laphroaig, barrels, utilizing the entire sweep of Laphroaig’s legendary romance with wood and patience…The hallmark Islay peat smoke is there, in spades, but laid over, like a silk scarf, on a bed of rich caramel, wet oak, vanilla, toffee, citrus peel, cocoa, apple butter, figs, dried dates, roasted cashews, and that fabulous malt, derived from those floors at the distillery and never from a supplier’s sack. Even a distinct note of fudge is there, a tongue-costing impression of just slightly bitter chocolate that tastes fat without becoming cloying…Lore is fantastically rich; rich in a way that even few Bourbons ever match. About $90 – $120. 100 Points
(Which brings us to one of the two or three most bewitching liquids of any kind that it has ever been my pleasure to taste. And, miracle of miracles, it is NOT in short supply and not that hard to find on a shelf. Rivaled only by one or two wines I’ve tasted, a 1900 Sauternes(!) I was privileged to sample, and two or three ales – Deschutes “The Abyss”, The Lost Abbey “Serpent Stout”, and Boundary Bay Barrel-Aged “Old Bounder” – this is literally the stuff of my dreams and everybody I’ve poured it for has said the same)
The Balvenie Caribbean Cask Single Malt Scotch 14 Years Old is a bloody masterpiece. I wish I could put it in a different and more dignified way but that’s the size of it: Masterpiece. It was spawned by the success of the original rum-aged Balvenie, Balvenie Rum Cask, which debuted in 2008 to worldwide fanfare.
Caribbean Cask is a more-than-worthy successor to Rum Cask and offers a broader range of flavors than that 2008 release, starting with an emphatic blast of vanilla that wafts out of the glass in an almost chewy cloud, underpinned with a woodsy note that recalls the barrel without making it the whole show. The vanilla carries strongly over onto the palate and is joined by a lush, nutty character that centers around almonds and cashews, topped with a distinct overlay of honey that segues into the flavor of stone fruits and heather. Lying under that little surprise is a lovely intimation of mild citrus; like a cured orange rind glazed with lemon curd. And riding ethereally atop all this is the spice of the rum barrels; a hint of nutmeg and anise and faint allspice that whispers the rum presence, rather than shouting it. The Burn, here, is among the most civilized and ultimately satisfying of any Whiskey of any type I have ever sampled. It warms, rather than scalds and that alcohol cloud permeates the retro-nasal passage with its own lovely finish, clearly expressing the warm wood of the oak casks and carrying the caramelized sugars of the dark rums that suffuse these well-seasoned vessels. This entire panorama of flavors is subtle and refined and somehow amazingly fresh, not to mention, for old Scotch freaks like me, a little shocking.
Rum and Scotch may well be spiritual cousins but, if so, they’re not from a very close family. And laying this soft and sexy patina of rum-soaked oak atop a very solid Scotch is an idea which could have just as easily been “meh” – or even ghastly. In the hands of Master Distiller, David Stewart, and his crew at Balvenie, it’s the closest thing to Jazz in a Glass that I’ve come across in a very long time. Price…aha. Fairly stable at right around $70 – $78 a bottle but occasionally either on sale or mispriced (I love it when that happens!) at around $65. 100 Points