Whether you've got a drinker or two on your present list, or have judged yourself in need of a little holiday cheer, alcohol is a holiday gift-giving staple. It's widely available, and everyone — well, everyone except maybe alcoholics — loves getting it. Here is a selection of the alcohols I've most enjoyed in the past year, and some alcohol-related accessories that — although never as cool as receiving booze itself — are not dumb.
Distilling rye used to be common in New York state before Prohibition — Manhattan, anyone? — but even after the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was permitted again, in 1933, the formerly robust industry often found itself thwarted by zoning restrictions and other local laws. More than 80 years later, Tuthilltown Spirits in the small upstate town of Gardiner became the first company to (legally) make rye in New York since the 21st amendment. I bought a bottle of their Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey earlier this year, and it really surprised me — this isn't some "artisanal" brand that you feel all special buying but that actually tastes, well, hand-made. It's good. Really good. It's very smooth, and the rye flavor is distinctive. It's not a blend, and it makes a killer Manhattan. I later bought their Hudson Baby Bourbon, which is also a fine liquor: it's well-balanced, not too sweet (I find, for example, Maker's Mark to be a little on the cloying side) and has just a hint of a caramel note. Tuthilltown distills all their spirits from raw whole grains and fruits, and they use no artificial flavors or colors. They do not chill or carbon-filter. They also make a single-malt whiskey, a four-grain blended bourbon, two kinds of apple-distilled vodka, and a corn whiskey, which I have not tried. But the rye and the baby bourbon definitely count as my favorite booze discoveries of the year.
Alternatively, if there is someone you love very, very much, why not get her or him 4.5 liters of Johnnie Walker Black? That size — equivalent to six bottles of wine — is technically known as a Rehoboam. Bonus: it comes with a kind of cradle to facilitate pouring.
And then there's this delicious whiskey, ahem, to use the Scottish apellation its makers prefer, whisky — it's bottled by Dunhill, of all people, and aged 23 years. It tastes like it knows how to drive, like it's eligible to vote, like it picked some kind of sensible and well-paying college major, like actuarial science or something: mature. It's a blend, which is weird in a Scotch this pricey, but it's fucking delicious, so who cares. For someone you really, really love, who also really, really, really loves Scotch.
Meanwhile, Balvenie makes possibly the best single-malt Scotch in the world. I like the 15-year Single Barrel, which is aged in one oak barrel, and the 12-year Doublewood, which is aged first in an oak cask and then in a cask previously used for sherry.
Okay, in non Scotch/whiskey/bourbon alcohols I happen to like, there's gin. The best one I tried this year is Junipero, named for Junípero Serra and distilled by the good folks at Anchor Brewing Company — primarily known for their Anchor Steam beer — in San Francisco. It's pot-distilled, hand-made, and very, very dry. But also smooth, balanced in its citrus and juniper notes, with a slight peppery edge. Makes a great martini. It's so good it would be kind of wasted in a G&T.
Junipero Gin 750mL, $26 online
I think I may have passingly mentioned Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier when writing this list last year, but fuck it. It's still good. This is a smoke beer from Germany, and I like it in an urbock, I like it in a märzen, and I haven't tried their weizen but I'm sure it's good, too. Smoke beer is brewed in Bavaria, and it's made from barley that, before malting, was kilned with burning wood from the beech forests native to that region. The intensity of Schlenkerla's flavor is hard to describe: it's smoky, obviously, but also almost lipidously smooth and full. With an undeniable note of bacon, particularly to the märzen. It tastes like no other beer.
Look, I'm patriotic, okay — but facts are facts: New Zealand makes some of the best sauvignon blanc in the world. Full stop. Your tastes will vary, and you should probably head down to your local wine store to make a selection — the clerk should be able to talk you through the options. I am partial to Giesen (slightly cheaper) and to Cloudy Bay (when I'm feeling fancy), which make a consistently good sav. Just be sure never to buy Kim Crawford, and never to listen to anyone or anything that advises you to buy Kim Crawford. That one's crap; we export it to foreigners because Kiwis know better.
If you need to give something to someone whose bar is already well-stocked, and you know he or she likes whiskey, why not consider some whiskey stones? They're little cubes of soapstone that you put in the freezer and they will chill a drink without diluting it. They have no taste of their own, so they don't change the flavor of your nice whiskey.
Whiskey Stones, $12.99
Last year, I recommended home-made infused vodka as a gift. I stand by that: horseradish, tarragon, ginger, lemons, and chili peppers all make great infusions. But I unfortunately included a baseless and totally uninformed swipe at infused gin. I mean, okay, gin is kind of already infused, so infusing it at home with even more botanicals seemed weird to me. But that was silly. I have in my kitchen right now a bottle of chili pepper gin that I have been using in all kinds of cocktails (mostly made-up ones, I'm still in the experimental phase, but when I get this baby's signature drink nailed down, oh boy). I used Gordon's and some dried chipotles, for that smoky flavor, and a bunch of dried habaneros for fire. It wasn't my idea: earlier this year, I stopped in at a bar called the Lighthouse, and had a thing they called the Foggy Dog — a house version of the Salty Dog made with spicy infused gin and fresh grapefruit juice, served in a salt-rimmed glass with a coriander stem as a garnish. Never has it been so delicious to be proven wrong. Infused gin is great! Go infuse some gin, everyone.
Bormioli Rocco "Giara" Bottles, $7.99 on sale