You could be forgiven if walking through the spirit aisles of your local liquor store is like being in a foreign country. At every turn you face a new language. American whiskies speak of small batch and single barrels, while Scotch whiskies trumpet about single malts, blends, and cask strength. As for tequila, do you want blanco, reposado, or anejo? Here’s a cheat sheet to help you navigate the crowded aisles and buy the perfect last-minute gift.
BOURBON was once a rowdy party crasher, but in the past decade, America's native spirit has earned a more refined reputation. A well-made bourbon shows an
earthy sweetness from corn, its primary ingredient. From there, some pack a hefty punch, others are as elegant and complex as a fine Bordeaux.
Eagle Rare 10 Year-Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon ($30): If you can imagine the smell walking into a weathered log cabin to find a freshly baked loaf of cinnamon-orange swirl bread on the stove, you have a good idea of how this beauty smells. This is a classic Kentucky gentleman. Legalese only requires bourbon be made in the USA, but the best ones are from the Bluegrass State.
Parker's Heritage Collection: Master Distiller's Blend of Mashbills ($80): This limited-edition bourbon is as brawny and spicy as it is elegant and sweet. It was designed by Parker Beam, a sixth-generation master distiller at Heaven Hill, which makes dozens of popular bourbons. This whiskey, which clocks in at a powerful 63.5 percent alcohol by volume, is a blend of wheated and rye-based bourbon.
"What's the use of thunder?" wrote Herman Melville in "Moby-Dick." "We don't want thunder; we want RUM; give us a glass of rum!" Maybe none of your friends are clamoring for rum with the intensity of Melville's seafarers, but that's probably because they've never tried the right one. Many rums are better suited for a snifter than a tall glass of Coke.
Privateer Silver Reserve Rum ($26): This Ipswich-made rum was launched last year by Bostonian Andrew Cabot, a descendant of the legendary family of privateers and distillery owners in the late 18th century. In an attempt to re-create a "true American style," his rum is distilled with sugar cane juice and pure brown sugar.
Plantation Guadeloupe 1998 Rum ($65): Rare is the spirits maker who successfully dabbles in spirits from foreign places, but Alexandre Gabriel, owner and master blender for Pierre Ferrand Cognac, does just that with his line of Plantation Rum. He scours the Caribbean for boutique rums like this one from Guadeloupe, which is distilled from pressed sugar cane juice, not molasses, and ships them off to France for further aging in Cognac barrels, which contribute dried fruit and oak notes to the rum's robust sweetness.
Remember when TEQUILA was your preferred party shot? Well, forget it. Tequila is distilled from Blue Weber agave, a member of the lily family, and depending on its age and other factors, it can range from fresh and fruity to sweet and nutty to earthy, oaky, and spicy. Here are some to savor.
Siete Leguas Blanco ($37): Blanco, or unaged, tequilas are the closest expression of pure agave, which has a sweet vegetal character. Some say they're best used in cocktails, as they won't overwhelm a drink, but they're perfectly agreeable with a cube of ice. This blanco is a fine pick for someone who might balk at a brawny sipping spirit, but appreciates nuance and craftsmanship.
El Tesoro de Don Felipe Paradiso ($80): This is a whiskey drinker's tequila. The astonishing complexity evokes bright dried cherry, walnuts and oak, and a lively peppery finish. This long-sleeping beauty is made by a third-generation descendant of El Tesoro's original distiller, who first fired up the stills in 1937. To this day they cook the agave in old-timey stone ovens.
When shopping, keep in mind there are two classes of SCOTCH. Single malts come from one distillery; blends contain many single malts and grain spirit, which has a softening effect.
Old Pulteney 12 Year Old ($40): The effects of terroir aren't limited to wine. That's best exemplified by a single malt produced and aged on a shoreline, like Old Pulteney, made at a facility located in what was the world's busiest port for the herring industry. The whiskey matures in warehouses along the craggy coast and since wood barrels are porous, the seaspray in the air is continually absorbed into the liquid. The end result is a gorgeous full-bodied sipper that starts off with subtle scents of grass and green banana and unfurls with flavors of zesty citrus and sweet briny sea air.
Bruichladdich: The Laddie Sixteen Year ($116): Made at a tiny distillery on Islay, an island famous for its peaty whiskies, the original Laddie Ten is known for floral and pear aromas and vanilla, snickerdoodle flavors imparted by American oak barrels. The 16-year-old is all those things amplified exponentially.