My latest ebook, Professor Cocktail’s Holiday Drinks: Recipes for Mixed Drinks and More, is chock full of over 100 recipes for tasty drinks to enjoy during the holidays. Here is one example. I served this at our Christmas party last year and it was a big hit.
An annual gift guide is obligatory for any self-respecting publication, along with many (like this one) that are not. Here are some suggestions for what to give the spirits lover in your life. There are more expensive and rarer spirits that I could tantalize you with. But these you can actually find most places and they won’t break the bank.
The most desirable bourbons — Pappy Van Winkle, George T. Stagg, etc. — are almost impossible to find. But there are still plenty of great bourbons that you can buy at the local liquor store. And Larceny is one of them. It’s a wheated bourbon, so it has a softer flavor profile — just like Pappy! — and it will please almost any palate.
Much like bourbon, the coveted rye whiskeys can be hard to find. Either that or they’re expensive. Bulleit Rye is both easy to find and affordable — and it’s good, too. Works for both sipping and cocktails, such as the Manhattan.
|Tanqueray Malacca Gin
This limited edition gin from Tanqueray is starting to get hard to find. And once it’s gone, it’s gone. So if you see any for sale, buy it. It’s an amazing gin: less Junipery, more citrusy, and a little sweeter. It’s particularly delicious in pre-Prohibition era cocktails like the Tom Collins or Martinez.
|Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion 1414 Reposado
An amazing tequila — one of the best I’ve tried this year. Spicy and fruity and bursting with deliciousness.
|Plantation 5 Year Old Grande Reserve Barbados Rum
A very versatile and excellent rum at a great price. The blenders at Pierre Ferrand (which makes Plantation Rum) are masters, and it shows in this rum.
|Grand Marnier Raspberry Peach
You know Grand Marnier, one of the world’s finest orange liqueurs. Now meet its cousin. This combines the traditional flavor of Grand Marnier with flavors of raspberry and peach. Makes a great Margarita or a nice dessert tipple.
|Boyd & Blair Vodka
Can vodka be delicious? Of course it can! And here’s the proof. The best vodka I tried all year. Creamy, smooth, and wonderful.
|Rhum Clément VSOP
If you’re looking for a more unique rum to give, Rhum Clément makes an excellent choice. One of the best examples of rhum agricole — a style of rum made from fresh sugar cane juice rather than the usual molasses — Rhum Clement has a spicy, rich and vibrant flavor. Can be enjoyed on its own, it also makes an amazing Mai Tai when combined with Jamaican rum.
|Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve
Blended scotches don’t get the respect that single malts do, but that’s crazy. Some of the best scotches in the world go into Johnnie Walker’s blends. This limited edition is only around for the holidays and I haven’t tried it. But the bottle alone makes it a gorgeous gift.
|Citadelle Reserve Gin
Most gin is intended to be drank in cocktails. And Citadelle Reserve makes a great cocktail. But it’s also excellent when enjoyed by itself over ice. The key here is that the gin is barrel aged after distillation, giving the finished product a softer, warmer flavor. (This one might be hard to find.)
|Suntory Hibiki 12 Year Whisky
Japanese whisky is one of the hot new trends in the whiskey world, and for good reason. It can still be hard to find, but definitely worth seeking out. Designed to be enjoyed in highballs or with a little water, Hibiki is dangerously drinkable.
Everybody knows Scotland makes great whiskey. The distillers of Caledonia have been crafting exquisite spirits for generations, becoming the envy of the distilling world. But now my ancestral homeland is starting to earn a reputation for quality gin as well.
It makes sense. Making a good gin requires distilling knowhow, quality botanicals, and pure water — and Scotland certainly has all three of those.
The best known Scottish gin is Hendrick's. Infused with cucumber and rose petals, the unique flavor of Hendrick's Gin has made it one of the most popular of the new wave of gins that have hit the market in recent years.
Now a new Scottish import is starting to get attention. Caorunn (pronounced "ka-roon") Gin is made by Inver House Distillers at their Balmenach whisky distillery in the Speyside region of Scotland. It's infused with five Celtic botanicals — including rowan berry, which is called "caorunn" in Gaelic — and six traditional botanicals.
Caorunn has a definite aroma of juniper, just as you'd expect from a gin made in the London Dry style, which this is. But there's also an undercurrent of sweet fruit, along with a little brine. A very pleasant scent overall.
The taste is a bit of a surprise. There's not much juniper there at all. Instead the sweet fruit from the nose is redoubled on the palate. In addition to the rowan berry, the botanical mix includes heather and apple, and that's what I think is jumping out here. It also has a touch of brine and some citrus notes to balance out the sweetness.
Caorunn is a tasty and satisfying gin, with lots of crisp flavor. It meets the classification of a London Dry Gin, but it quite different from the standard Tanqueray and Beefeater. Because of its sweetness, I can see using it in cocktails that originally called for Old Tom Gin (like a Tom Collins) and also drinks that have an herbal character (like a Martini).
And yes, it makes a delicious Gin and Tonic (which the distiller recommends garnishing with a slice of apple).
The Scots do it again!
Given Atlantic City's location, it was a prime location for rumrunners bringing illicit liquor into the country from Canada. And Canadian hooch usually meant whisky. Canadian Club, then produced by the Hiram Walker Company, was a particular favorite. (It was also the choice of Don Draper, for you Mad Men fans.) Crown Royal, produced by the Seagram company, was also born during this time.
Gin became increasingly popular with Americans (and bootleggers) during Prohibition. There was plenty of it to be had in England and Canada for organized crime syndicates to import. And unlike whiskey, which has to be aged, gin can be produced in an illegal still and immediately sold. There was also the infamous "bathtub gin" — gin made at home — which came with significant dangers due to the possibility of methanol in the final product.
Although not as desirable as whiskey or gin, rum was still a popular spirit to bootleg (thus the name "rumrunning"), with most of the supply coming from Cuba, the Bahamas and other Caribbean locales. Much of the bootleg rum ended up further south than Atlantic City, but a fair share of Bacardi still made its way to "The World's Playground."
So if you're planning to watch this weekend, who can blame you if you want to enjoy a drink along with the show? Here are some suggestions.
1 1/2 oz. of Crown Royal Black Blended Whisky
1/2 oz. Sweet Vermouth
1 tsp. Simple Syrup
1 Dash Angostura Bitters
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.
2 oz. Canadian Club Classic 12 Year Old Whisky
4 oz. 7-Up or Ginger Ale
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
Build in an old-fashioned glass over ice. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.
1 1/2 oz. Bacardi White Rum
1 oz. Unsweetened Pineapple Juice
1 tsp. Grenadine
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice and stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
1 1/2 oz. London Dry Gin
1/2 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
3/4 oz. Simple Syrup
Shake with cracked ice, then strain into a flute. Top with chilled Champagne. Garnish with a lemon peel spiral (aka a horse's neck).
Shot of Rotgut
1 1/2 oz. of Rotgut, Moonshine or Other Cheap Liquor
Fill a shot glass with rotgut. Pray you don't go blind.
1 1/2 oz. Limoncello
1 oz. Gin
1/2 oz. Lemon Juice
8-10 Mint Leaves
Gently muddle the mint leaves with lemon juice in the bottom
of a mixing glass. Add the limoncello and gin and shake with ice. Strain into
an ice-filled highball glass. Top with club soda. Garnish with a mint sprig.
Properly stocking a home bar can be an expensive proposition. There are many different products you likely will want to buy, and a lot of them aren't cheap. The good news is, you probably won't be going through the bottles that quickly, and most alcohol stays good for a very long time.*
There are three different major styles of gin: London Dry, Old Tom and Genever. (You could also throw Plymouth Gin into the mix.) The good news is you only need to buy one bottle to start: London Dry. Tanqueray has long been my favorite, but Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater are excellent as well. Buy whichever one is cheapest.
It's easy to spend more money on vodka then you need to, especially if you reach for the Grey Goose because you "heard it's the best." By all means, pick up an expensive bottle if you're feeling flush. My favorite, which is medium-priced, is Stolichnaya. But you'll get by very well with some Sobieski.
Rum is a little more challenging, because rums vary a lot depending on what country they're from, what color they are (light/white vs. gold/dark), how long they're aged, etc. I would recommend starting out with two bottles, one of white rum and one of gold rum. Cruzan (from the U.S. Virgin Islands) is recommended — both cheaper and better than the ubiquitous Bacardi. But if you can find Flor de Caña (from Nicaragua) it only costs a little more and is excellent. If you don't drink much rum and only want to buy one bottle, I suggest you get some Appleton V/X, a very versatile and tasty rum.
Tequila has grown enormously in popularity over the past several years, which means there are now a lot of great choices on the shelves, in all kinds of prices. If your goal is to make Margaritas and other similar drinks, you'll want a silver tequila. I recommend either Camarena or Milagro. They're both affordable and easy to find.
This is a tough one, because there are so many types and so many choices. Do you go with a Scotch, Canadian or Irish? Bourbon, rye or Tennessee? If I were buying just one type, I would probably go with bourbon, and would probably get Maker's Mark. Maker's isn't the favorite whiskey of a lot of people, but it's a very good one and it's something that almost any whiskey drinker will drink without complaining. If you want to branch out and add a Scotch, I'd go with Johnnie Walker Black. Again, not always a favorite, but a crowd pleaser.
Cognac (which is brandy made according to certain rules in a particular area of France) was hot a decade or so back when the hip hop community discovered it, and brands like Hennessy and Remy Martin were name-checked in rap songs. It's cooled off since then, so there are plenty of good bargains to be found. (And also plenty of bottles that will cost you as much as a nice vacation.) If you want a simple brandy, I find Raynal to be quite good. It works fine in a lot of cocktails and won't set you back much at all. If you're looking for something a little more sophisticated, go for one of the cognacs made by Pierre Ferrand. (Their Ambre is very good and only costs around $40.)
If you're going to make any kind of cocktails, you're going to need some modifiers, with the most common being an orange liqueur. It might be triple sec or Curacao, but in order to make a Margarita or a Sidecar or Mai Tai, you're going to need something. There are many different types of orange liqueur, ranging from cheap to expensive. Unfortunately, the cheap stuff is usually not very good. On the upside, a bottle will last a long time, so it doesn't hurt as much to splurge. If you want a dryer liqueur, go with Cointreau. If you want a sweeter one, go with Grand Marnier. Yes, they're expensive. But they're so good that you'll be glad you spent the extra money.
If you're planning to make Martinis or Manhattans, you'll need to get some vermouth. Sweet (red) vermouth goes in a Manhattan and dry (white) vermouth goes in a Martini. There are some high-end brands that are delicious. But on the affordable end of things Martini (sweet) and Noilly Pratt (dry) work very well.
You're not going to get this done without spending a couple hundred bucks. But once you do, you'll be able to make a lot of drinks — and save yourself a ton of dough over what you'd spend in a bar. Plus, with a little practice, you'll be able to whip up some great cocktails that will quickly make you the envy of all your friends and neighbors.
*Except for vermouth. Vermouth is only good for a couple of months once you open it. And only if you keep it in the refrigerator. And yes, I know vermouth isn't a spirit. Neither is orange liqueur.
First launched in 2006 as one of the pioneers of the new trend in American gins, Aviation has been repackaged with a striking new look that classes up the bottle to match the contents.
Aviation tastes like gin, but not the gin we're used to. It has the requisite juniper flavor, but it's much more subtle than in London dry gin. (That makes this a nice alternative for those who find gin too piney.) It has pronounced notes of citrus and spice, and an almost briny character that would probably go great in a Martini.
Aviation is softer than most gins. A little more inviting. It's designed to be used in cocktails, especially those from the pre-Prohibition era. But you can certainly drink it straight if you want to, and won't be disappointed.
I didn't make a Martini (or an Aviation, this gin's namesake cocktail), but I did mix it in a Gin and Tonic. I was concerned that the less assertive character of this spirit would get lost in the mix. But no fear. It balanced quite nicely, making for a tasty, refreshing cocktail that is dangerously easy to drink.
Aviation Gin is 84-proof, but never harsh. It's a different style of gin than the norm, but that's a good thing. Tasty alternatives are always welcome, and Aviation Gin matches up quite nicely on that score.
The holidays are upon us once again. Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or all three, you want to find the perfect gift to give to those you care about. If that special someone enjoys a good tipple, your task is that much easier. Just give them booze!
This week we’ll be running our holiday gift guide, with recommendations for spirits in different categories. First up is gin.
Professor Cocktail’s Holiday Gift Guide: Gin
Gifting a bottle to a gin lover is simpler than with most spirits. There aren’t as many choices as there are with Scotch (for example), and most of the brands are damn good.
Can’t-Miss Gin: Tanqueray ($19)
One of the world’s most ubiquitous gins is also one of the best. The classic gin of the London dry variety, Tanqueray is always welcome.
Perfect All-Purpose Gin: Plymouth ($30)
Virtually any cocktail that calls for gin can be deliciously made with Plymouth. Softer and a little sweeter than Tanqueray, every bar (and every gin drinker) needs a bottle on the shelf.
The Gift for the Gin Connoisseur: North Shore No. 11 ($32)
A truly unique gin that most haven’t heard of, North Shore No. 11 has the classic flavors of a London dry, augmented with amazing herbs and spices. Makes a one-of-a-kind delicious gin and tonic.
We’ve included links for each suggestion to K&L Wines (where available). K&L is a great spirits store, with impeccable service and a sterling reputation. You can order from them with confidence. Send them an email to see if they ship to your state. (Note: We’re not being compensated for these links — but we should be!)