Gift Finder 2013

The Holiday Gift Finder 2013: Top-Shelf-Worthy Booze (and a Few Mixers)

Liquor is like the gift card of the food lovers’ holiday haul: universal and eminently practical. But for the booze aesthete in your life, you’re going to have to do better than a fifth of Jameson and a greeting card. That’s why we’ve compiled the season’s most exciting bottles (arranged by price), most of which are new to shelves this year. Get ready for things like aged gin, cultish rye, and toe-curlingly bitter liqueurs, plus bottled mixers fit for a typography nerd, and a subscription service that should keep your giftee lit up like the star of Bethlehem all year long.

Earlier: The Holiday Gift Finder 2013: Regifting-Proof Food Baskets

The tea inside these handsome bottles is brewed with cocktails in mind. Whole leaves and spices flavor mixers like the clove-and-cardamom Coco-Lada, or the English Breakfast Classic. Gift these with a 750ml bottle of gin or vodka and a set of jiggers—two parts tea to one part booze makes for an easy afternoon highball. Owl’s Brew beverage mixers, $16
Employees Only honcho Dushan Zaric and former Absolut brand ambassador Simon Ford designed 86 Spirits Co., a line of building-block booze, with bartenders in mind: The bottles are ergonomic, with ridges for a better grip, measurement ticks for batching drinks, and a shape designed to fit neatly into the speed rail. But you don’t have to be a pro to appreciate the fire water inside, engineered to play well in cocktails. The Tequila Cabeza and three-year Caña Brava are particularly lovely, the latter made at a Panamanian distillery in the style of a classic Cuban rum. Cherry pick bottles as gifts or pick up the whole line to trick out a home bar in one fell swoop. Fords Gin, Caña Brava Rum, Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Tequila Cabeza, $26 to $35
There was a time not long ago when the spicy, oaky thumbprint of barrel aging was mostly reserved for spirits like rum and whiskey. But in recent years, gin has crept into the cask, too, creating a kind of niche spirit category known as barrel-aged gin. The process can sand the edges off a juniper-forward English London Dry, as in Beefeater’s gorgeous small-batch release Burrough’s Reserve. But for the American loyalist in your life, you might buy a bottle of Chief Gowanus, produced at New York Distilling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This beauty really pushes the affinity between whiskey and barrel-aged gin: It’s made using a rye distillate that’s redistilled with classic gin botanicals and piney American cluster hops, then aged for three months in used whiskey barrels. Both products stand up to sipping, but the Burrough’s — rested in oak for just a few weeks — is particularly lovely in an elegant martini, swirled with herbal vermouth. Chief Gowanus, $36; Burrough’s Reserve, $80
Speaking of challenging hooch, have you heard of malört? The extremely bitter wormwood liqueur is all the rage among macho Chicago bartenders, who exalt the stuff the way bartenders in New York and San Francisco aggrandize Fernet Branca. Which is to say, if you have a seen-it-all cocktail cynic on your gift list, a flask of R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Malört from Chicago distiller Letherbee ought to bring them to their knees. More astringent than a chemical peel and requiring nearly as much recuperation time, the stuff makes your lips curl, eyes squint, and cheeks seize for a few glorious seconds — they call that “malört face.” Happy holidays, guys. Letherbee Malört, $37
In much the same way serious drinkers extol the bitter flavors of Italian amari, a seasoned lush happily appreciates the sublime funk of an agricole rum — that is, rum distilled from sugarcane juice rather than molasses. Most of the good stuff comes out of Martinique, but Northern California distillery St. George Spirits just rereleased its world-class American expression made from the fermented juice of local cane stalks. It smells like grass and mushrooms, pickle brine, and unicorns, and is probably one of the most astonishing new rums we’ve encountered. Stuff it in a stocking with a pair of limes and a bottle of Angostura, and let the Christmas-morning daiquiris flow. St. George California Agricole Rum, $50
Absinthe, the French aperitif that launched a thousand bogus mythologies, has had a fine time inching back into prominence following the lift of America’s 95-year ban in 2007. Countless varieties have flooded the market since then, but cocktail history completists will appreciate a bottle of Pernod’s original formula absinthe. The iconic company recently revived its pre-ban recipe, ditching artificial dyes and neutral grain spirit base. The nineteenth-century formula, pieced together using period documents, is instead built with a neutral wine spirit derived from Languedoc grapes, and gets its green color from macerated nettles. Pernod Absinthe Original Recipe, $73
Meredith Lantz and Joe Barwin, who operate South San Francisco shop Bitters + Bottles, launched their liquor delivery service in New York and California just in time for holiday gifting. Like Birchbox for booze, the monthly packages contain ingredients and recipe cards for five classic cocktails—the “To London and Italy” pack, for example, includes Campari, sweet vermouth, gin and soda along with specs for drinks like the Negroni and Boulevardier. Cocktail subscriptions can be purchased in one-, three-, six-, or twelve-month increments ($95 per month with no airplane-size bottles in sight). There’s also a spirits subscription: $75 per month for one or more bottles intended for sipping, not mixing. Bitters + Bottles cocktail box subscription (from $75 to 95)
You might scoff at the idea of bourbon produced outside Kentucky, but a few respectable outfits — like Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Massachusetts and Finger Lakes Distilling in New York — may well change your mind. Add to that list this charmer, made in the Hudson Valley from a blend of Hillrock’s own young whiskey with “seed” bourbons sourced from other distilleries. To age it, Hillrock borrows the solera process, a barreling system commonly associated with Spanish sherry. All this boozy cross-breeding makes for a kind of “We Are the World” whiskey — a tasty bastard that smacks of figs and brown sugar. Buy this for the Bluegrass State jingoist on your list and blow their mind. Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon, $88 Photo: B. Docktor/?? B. Docktor 2013
Here’s another cross-cultural stunner, this one for a deserving (and open-minded) Scotch lover. Japanese whisky closely follows Scottish production methods — consider the background of Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru, who studied chemistry at the University of Glasgow and apprenticed at Scottish distilleries before bringing the craft back to his motherland in the twenties. Nikka recently launched four new expressions in the U.S. market, all of them exceptional and priced accordingly. For Grub’s money, we like the plummy and gently floral Miyagikyo Single Malt, right in the aged-for-twelve-years sweet spot. If you’re dealing with an ageist, go for the 21-year Taketsuru Pure Malt — all cocoa and coffee beans with a nose like a cold fireplace. Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt 12, $119; Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 21, $175
Comfort a disillusioned Pappy Van Winkle hunter with this knockout from Cooper Spirits. The juice, sourced from a Canadian distillery and aged for thirteen years in charred American oak, is 100 percent rye whiskey — no corn or barley in the mash bill to soften the grain’s spicy bite. At over 100 proof it’s big and bad, and tastes a bit like someone emptied their pipe in a vat of caramel. This is serious stuff with finite availability, which means it’s destined for cult status. You ought to secure a bottle for yourself, too, while you have the chance. Lock, Stock & Barrel rye, $120
The Holiday Gift Finder 2013: Top-Shelf-Worthy Booze (and a Few Mixers)