There is a rich tradition of fascinating and useful books about cocktail and spirits, dating back to at least the mid-19th century when “Professor” Jerry Thomas published the world’s first cocktail guide.
I’ve been steadily building my collection over the past few years, some of which I’ve reviewed here on the site, and more of which I’d like to. I’m also regularly adding new books to the library — and here is the latest batch.
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.
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.
We're mostly consumer-focused here at Professor Cocktail, but occasionally we come across news from the booze biz that we think you might be interested in.
The U.S. spirits market achieved steady growth in 2012, as vodka solidified its position as the leading category on the strength of its top-selling brands. Total U.S. spirits sales rose by 3% to 204 million cases, according to Impact Databank. Smirnoff vodka was #1, rising by 2.1% to 9.8 million cases. Bacardi rum was #2, approximately 200,000 cases behind.
Bulleit Bourbon is set to offer a higher-proof, higher-priced offshoot, Bulleit 10. The new 10-year-old Bulleit expression is 91.2-proof (the core brand is 90-proof) and will retail for around $45 a bottle, approximately $20 higher than the core brand, depending on the market. It’s expected to hit shelves this month.
In related news, the famed Stitzel-Weller Distillery (once owned by Pappy Van Winkle, now owned by Diageo) is reopening. No doubt the bourbon will be nothing like the stuff they used to make, but it's still kinda cool.
Grand Marnier is planning to introduce three new products over the next year: GM Titanium, a double-distilled, clear, Cognac-based spirit targeted at urban millennial consumers; Louis Alex Bourbon Barrel, a new cuvée, double distilled with essence of orange and aged in Bourbon barrels; and Grand Marnier Raspberry Peach, a new flavor extension.
Sazerac Co. is introducing Epic, a new French vodka, to the American market. Sazerac plans to start shipping Epic (roughly $13 a 750-ml.) to around 30 states in February, with national availability expected later in the year. Along with the core offering, Epic has six flavor extensions: Peach, Whipped Cream, Kiwi Strawberry, Cherry, Cake and Coconut. Sazerac said more flavors will be added at later dates.
Celebrity mixologists Simon Ford, Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric have launched a new venture, The 86 Co., starting with a portfolio of four mixology-focused spirits. The lineup includes Caña Brava ($34.99), a three-year-old rum aged in a combination of new uncharred American oak and used American whiskey barrels; Fords gin ($37.99), distilled in London and featuring a blend of nine botanicals; Tequila Cabeza ($42.99); and Aylesbury Duck vodka ($30.99).
Serrallés USA is launching a new ultra-premium Tequila brand, Casamigos, this month. Casamigos was created by actor George Clooney and nightlife entrepreneur Rande Gerber, alongside partner Mike Meldman.
A. Hardy USA is set to introduce a new liqueur—Serata Amaretto Di Piemonte—to the U.S. market. Produced in Ghemme, Italy, the new offering will be available nationwide beginning next month, priced at $22.99 a 750-ml. bottle.'
According to GuestMetrics, the fastest growing cocktail flavors in restaurants and bars in 2012 were Mango (+35), Tea (+30), Ginger (+15), Melon (+15), and Cucumber (+10).
Everybody likes predictions — especially when the predictor gets things horribly wrong and looks like a dolt. So here are my predictions for the spirituous world in 2013. Bookmark this page so you can come back in a year and see how I did.
An end to whiskey insanity:
The past few years have been crazy ones for the whiskey business. Prices are climbing steadily, yet a shortage of older whiskey remains. More and more rare expressions are hitting the market and there seems to be no ceiling on the demand for them — or the prices they fetch. Bourbons like Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection have become almost impossible to find. Can all of this continue? I doubt it. Consumer trends are nearly always cyclical and there's no reason to think that whiskey will be any different. Eventually things will settle down and return to a more normal state of affairs. It might as well be this year.
Less complicated cocktails:
When the craft cocktail revolution hit full flower, things got a little out of hand. Cocktails with seven ingredients, two of which had to be made from scratch and one that cost $100 an ounce. Did these drinks really taste good enough to justify all the fuss and expense? Probably not. I think we'll see more normalcy coming to our mixology. Skilled bartenders are still going to make great drinks with delicious and unexpected flavors. They're just going to do so without the extra layer of nonsense.
The year for mezcal:
We all know how popular tequila is. But what about mezcal? Tequila's agave cousin from southern Mexico is poised to break through to a larger audience — and this just might be the year it happens. Look for more brands and expressions to hit the shelves. And give one a try.
More wine in cocktails:
We've been seeing this trend picking up steam the last year or two, and I think it's ready to go mainstream. Cocktails with port and sherry especially are going to start popping up everywhere.
Skinny is the new fat:
Although the merits of the "skinny" trend are debatable, it's not going anywhere. Skinny spirits, skinny wine, skinny cocktails — you're going to see plenty of them this year.
It's been years since Alice Waters began her push to encourage people to eat local. In 2013 we're going to see this trend really start to assert itself in the cocktail and spirits world. Fresh, local ingredients in cocktails, accompanied by regionally-made booze, will continue to grow. People want to know where the stuff in their drinks is coming from, and this desire to drink local will help support the growing craft spirits movement.
Carbonated cocktails have been featured in recent years in several of the high-end cocktail bars — especially when wizards like Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Jamie Boudreau are behind the stick. But now we're going to see booze that comes with the carbonation right in the bottle. Prevu and Nuvo are at the leading edge of this trend.
What do you foresee on the horizon? Anything you're excited or horrified about?
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.
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!)
When I started Professor Cocktail it seemed natural to assign letter grades when reviewing spirits. It just makes sense: the professor gives grades. But as I've written a bunch of reviews over the past year, I've grown to question the usefulness of a grading scale for booze that mirrors the familiar classroom model. I've asked myself more and more about the differences between a B and a B- spirit, and how they differ from a C+.
Are these differences discernible and meaningful? And, even more importantly, are they useful? Do they give the reader valuable information? I'm not so sure — and if they're not aiding the consumer, what's the point of doing it?
When I write book reviews, something I've done professionally for almost a decade now, I don't assign letter grades or give scores. I just write the review and allow the critique to stand for itself. I don't think it's ever unclear what I think of the book, because the review tells you.
Spirits are a little different, however, because we have to use words to convey flavors and aromas. We're trying to give the reader some guidance on what to expect from a spirit in terms of taste, etc., which is more nebulous than what they can expect from a book or film.
Because of this, I think it makes sense to assign some type of score along with the verbal review for spirits. But I also think it makes sense to use a more streamlined grading scale than what we have been. I think most consumers look to spirits reviews for two kinds of guidance: what to expect, and whether or not they should buy it. A grade can help make the picture clearer.
Out of all the scoring systems I've seen, I like the one used by F. Paul Pacult the best. He awards stars ranging from one to five with no fractional increments. How many stars the spirit receives indicates both its relative quality, and whether or not he recommends it. I like both the simplicity and the utility of this method. So I'm stealing it.
Here is the grading scale that we'll be using from this point on:
The redoubtable Camper English has a regular feature on ShakeStir.com where he rounds up the New Booze that's coming out. It makes for an interesting read, both to admire the latest cool stuff, and to cringe at the dreck the marketeers are foisting on the public.
Here's a list of the last two months' worth of new products. Click through to read more about each item.
You know what your Dad really wants for Father's Day: booze! He doesn't need another necktie or a pair of slippers or whichever 1950's cliche you choose to bestow. Liquor is the gift that is never turned down. Because even if it's not your brand, even if it's not your spirit, it's still alcohol.
Here are some suggestions for bottles to give, in each of the major categories.
Rum: Appleton Estate Extra ($28) – One of the all-time great spirits, and one of my favorite rums. It's hard to go wrong with this one. It's good to sip on its own, and brilliant in cocktails. Every dad who enjoys a drink should have a bottle of this rum.
Bourbon Whiskey: Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon – There are so many great bourbons, this is a category where the choices are virtually endless. I'm recommending the Four Roses Small Batch because it's reasonably priced and of very high quality. If you'd rather go up a step, you can get the Four Roses Single Barrel ($40), which we reviewed recently. Or if you're trying to save a little, you can give the Four Roses Yellow Label ($17). They're all good.
Irish Whiskey: Bushmills Black Bush ($30) - The ultimate in blended Irish whiskey, Black Bush is a spirit for all seasons. Great flavor, great balance, great whiskey.
Rye Whiskey: Wild Turkey Rye 81 ($20) – There are several excellent brands of rye that I could recommend, but Wild Turkey is a straight-ahead, good-tasting rye whiskey that is easy to find. If you see the 101 Proof version, buy that instead. (The higher-proof version has gotten much harder to find.)
Canadian Whisky: Canadian Club Classic 12 Year ($16) – Canadian whisky is often gifted for Father's Day, and for good reason. It tastes good, there's nothing extreme or esoteric about it, and it's very affordable. The Canadian Club Classic is a perfect example of that.
Gin: Tanqueray ($17) – Gin is a beautiful spirit: classic, elegant and refined. There are many different brands on the market, a lot of which I like. But I keep coming back to Tanqueray –pure distilled magic in a bottle.
Vodka: Stolichnaya Elit ($50) – Maybe your Dad is a man of refined, but simple tastes. In that case, give him a bottle of one of the best vodkas in the world. Yes, it's expensive. If you don't want to spend that much, you could give Stolichnaya Gold ($30, 1L) instead. Even the basic Stolichnaya ($17) label is top-notch stuff.
Tequila: Avión Silver ($39) – This is my favorite blanco tequila, as revealed in our tequila taste test a while back. It's one of the few silver tequilas that you can enthusiastically drink neat, and it also makes a killer Margarita.
Scotch: The Balvenie DoubleWood ($44) – A lot of people immediately think "single malt Scotch" when they're planning to give a gift. I try to steer people in other directions, since Scotch drinkers tend to be picky about their brands. However, if you're committed to giving Scotch, this is an excellent choice.
Brandy: Pierre Ferrand Ambre 10 Year Cognac ($39) – The Pierre Ferrand company has been making a lot of noise the last couple of years by introducing excellent new products to the market, and this is one of them. A fine brandy that's better than most of what you'll find from the better-known producers.
Liqueur: Cointreau ($35) – Perhaps the finest orange liqueur in the world, it's absolutely essential for making cocktails. A lot of people avoid buying it, though, because it's expensive. That makes it a perfect gift. The difference between Cointreau and cheap triple sec in a Margarita or Sidecar is akin to the difference between chicken salad and chicken…