A Drinky Gifts Guide

Source: Alexei Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, Alcohol (Fuel, 2017) .

By Kevin R. Kosar

No to rock-hard fruitcakes. No to hideous neckties that match nothing in one’s wardrobe. No to useless contraptions like the Ronco inside-the-egg scrambler. And no to more electronic gadgets that pester and scatter the mind with pings, bleeps, and jangles.

Go for drinky gifts instead, which cannot fail to delight and provide hours of levity in these weird times of creepy willy-wavers in America and belligerent lunatics on the other side of the globe.

 

Beer

Thirty years ago, the best beer I could find in most groceries was Michelob or Lowenbrau. How times have changed in our grand land. These days, you can throw a rock in any direction and it has a high probability of hitting a good bottle of beer. Which makes shopping for brews easy.

Among the brands I would recommend are Germany’s Riegele bocks and Dortmunders, Montana’s Grand Teton Brewing’s gose and ales, Oregon’s Full Sail Brewing’s entire line-up (everything is great), and the big ales and stouts made by Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery, Founder’s Brewing Company, and New Holland.

You might also box up and put a bow on bottles of Guinness’ new beers, like the Antwerpen Stout or Rye Pale Ale.

 

Hard cider

Icky sweet apple ciders in 12-ounce bottles are common in U.S. grocery stores. Skip them and grab a 750 milliliter bottle of old style cider. Le Lieu Cheri’s Cidre Fermier and Cave de la Lotterie (imported by Wine Traditions Ltd) are dry, light, and decidedly earthy ciders ($10-$12). The aromas arising from these sparkling beverages are sour and mushroom-y. I served these ciders as whistle-wetters before our Thanksgiving dinner. At a mere 5 percent alcohol they can be enjoyed without getting you loopy.

 

Bourbon, whiskey, and rye

Never has it been a better time to be a whiskey drinker. Newer brands like Angel’s Envy Bourbon (aged in port barrels and $50 a bottle) and the splendid Filibuster Dual Cask Bourbon (finished in French oak barrels and $40 a bottle) are among the brands that have reconceptualized the flavor profile of bourbon without abandoning its essence: sweet and fiery. Traverse City Whiskey Company’s flag ship straight bourbon whiskey (86 proof; $35) gives the tippler a sense of what the whiskey century ago must have been like: a thick with charred barrel flavor and a little hot on the swallow.

Iowa’s Cedar Ridge Distillery, which won the American Distilling Institute’s distillery of the year award, offers the whiskey lover a veritable smorgasbord. They make a wheat whiskey, a bourbon, a malted rye whiskey, two single malts, and an unaged whiskey. All retail for $40 to $60. Smallish (200 ml) bottles of five different Cedar Ridge whiskeys come in the oh-so-givable American Whiskey Explorer package ($70).

The big boys of American whiskey also have upped their games in recent years. This year I quite enjoyed Wild Turkey Decades (104 proof; $150), George Dickel Barrel Select (86 proof; $40), Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select (94 proof; $65), and Maker’s Mark Cask Strength (108 to 114 proof; $60).

Rye, as everyone knows, has made a yuge comeback. To get a sense of old rye versus new, consider giving someone a bottle of Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Rye (100 proof; $27) and a fifth of Filibuster Dual Cask Rye (90 proof; $45). The former tastes of grain, black pepper, and a little apricot. The latter is gentler, slightly sweet, and offers apple and floral notes. I love each of them. If you want to impress a rye aficionado, pony up $110 for WhistlePig 12-year old rye (86 proof).

 

Wine and fortified wine

Hands down, the best wine I tasted this year was also the priciest: Ken Deis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($60 most places; $25 via NakedWines.com). This red tasted like a cross between Bordeaux and a new world fruit bomb. It was utterly succulent, and showed faint blueberry and cedar notes. I nearly wept when the bottle was empty.

If you want remarkable bang-for-the-buck, wrap up some bottles of Jose Maria da Fonseca wines (imported by Palm Bay International). These Portuguese red wines have remarkably diverse flavor profiles. Da Fonseca’s Ripanço ($12) reminds me of beauojolas nouveau. It is light bodied, floral, and only a little fruity. The Jose se Sousa 2015 ($17) is very old world—it is dry, vegetal, and shows a clove note. Meanwhile, Da Fonseca Periquita Reserva 2014 ($15) is very new world. It offers immense fruit and vanilla notes and all but screams for pairing with steak, roasted vegetables, and gooey or salty cheese. For those with deeper pockets, the $40 Domini Plus 2014 would make a welcome gift for a wine collector. This inky red wine is very fruity, tannic, and dry, and will age well. Da Fonseca, I should add, produces terrific fortified wines. The Alambre Moscatel de Setubal 2010 ($17) would appeal to those who enjoy port. It has floral and peach notes. Yum.

Speaking of fortified wines, Vignobles Constance et Terrassous, Rivesaltes Ambré Hors d’âge 6 (35 proof; $30; Regal Wine Imports) is a gorgeous amber-red dessert wine. All the delicious port-type flavors —fig, honey, etc.— are here. Serve neat at room temperature or very slightly chilled and enjoy it with your feet up and your hand near a good book and cheese tray.

 

Books on cocktails and more

For the person who loves to read of drink, there are abundant choices. Alexei Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell’s Alcohol (Fuel, 2017) carries eye-popping photographs of Soviet anti-drink posters from the 1960s to 1980s. The government produced bazillions of them, but the downtrodden citizenry kept boozing. Steven Grasse’s Colonial Spirits (Abrams Image, 2017), as I previously wrote, is a wild and amusing romp through early American drink.

Robert Simonson’s A Proper Drink (Ten Speed Press, 2016) is a lengthy, deep-dive report on how America’s cocktail scene revived over the past 30 years. As someone who was in the thick of the whole New York City drink scene in the 1990s, I can attest that Simonson got much of the truth. Those of an antiquarian bent might enjoy receiving a copy of Sherry Monahan and Jane Perkins’ The Golden Elixir of the West (TwoDot, 2018). It is filled with amusing old yarns about American whiskey.

Friends and family who like to DIY can be given Emma Christensen’s Modern Cider (Ten Speed Press, 2017), a pretty tome that teaches how to make various fruit ciders, shrubs, and wines.

And those feeling charitable to the industrious hack who has written innumerable columns for your eyes, you can help feed his family and fishing habit by filling stockings with his slim tomes on whiskey and moonshine.

Kevin R. Kosar edits AlcoholReviews.com is the author of Moonshine: A Global History (2017) and Whiskey: A Global History (2010). This post also appeared at the American Spectator.

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Unusual Drinks (Part 2): Stolen Spirits Smoked Whiskey, Burrough’s Reserve Gin, Underberg, Brennivin “Death Schnapps” and Boardroom Spirits Beet Spirit

Sour beer, white lightning from South America, smoked rum, and liqueur made from the sap of a tree in Greece—those were featured in my first installment of “Unusual Drinks.”

But there is more weirdness to come. Oh so much.

Let us begin with another offering from our friends at Stolen Spirits. They purchased 11-year old American whiskey, and added a smoky flavor by pitching charred, chopped barrel staves into it. (It’s a bit like the technique some vintners use to add flavor to their white wines.) The result is a 92 proof brown booze loaded with vanilla and baking spice flavors. Yum.

Wait, you might object, that’s not all that unusual. Well, how about this: barrel-aged gin? Historically, this white spirit has sluiced straight from the still to the bottle. No more. Folks are aging it. Beefeater, producer of the venerable London dry gin, has introduced a few new products in recent years, including Burrough’s Reserve. This 86-proof gin spends time —how much is not clear— in small oak casks that formerly held red and white Bordeaux wines. This imparts a straw color to the spirit and produces a gin that is softer, less piney, and more herbal. Does it work in a martini? Beats me—I sip it neat.

When a small bottle of Underberg digestif (88 proof) landed on my desk, I was unnerved. It looked like a tincture from the late 19th century—an eye-dropper type bottle wrapped in brownish newspaper, with a label boasting herbs from 43 nations. I nearly looked to see if the label claimed it cured dropsy, pleurisy, and priapism. Nope, but it does exclaim: “TO FEEL BRIGHT AND ALERT.” Five minutes after my first tiny sip of this German medicine the bizarre, intense, bitter flavor afflicted my tongue. It was as if I had licked wood that had been stewed in mint, anise, licorice, clove, and who knows what else.

After Underberg, I thought I was well girded to taste “death schnapps.” I was wrong. Brennivin is an evil booze. It is only 75 proof but unswallowable — it bombs the mouth with caraway and cumin aromas, and sent me to the sink.

Last, but assuredly not least in the unusual drinks queue this time is…. Beet spirit. Yes, a craft distillery in Pennsylvania has made a 90-proof clear spirit from red beets. I take my hat off to the producer, Boardroom Spirits, this liquor is astonishingly smooth. If you like borscht, well, this is the hooch for you. It oozes beet aroma and flavor. Which is very unusual.

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at R Street Institute and heads its alcohol policy reform program. He is the author of Moonshine: A Global History (2017) and Whiskey: A Global History (2010).

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Refreshing Drinks to Beat the August Heat

Everyone who knows me knows I love whiskey. Bourbon, Irish, Scotch, Rye…. It also is welcome to me.

This summer, I enjoyed a great deal of Kentucky classic’s, especially Knob Creek and Harper’s. A liquor store near my office is selling fifths for $25, so can you blame me?

I also enjoyed an odd duck of a bourbon: Sonoma County Distilling Co.’s West of Kentucky Bourbon Whisky No. 1. To the corn and rye mash the distiller added cherrywood smoked malted barley. And it shows — there is a faint cherry aroma to this oily, slightly herbal whisky. They bottled this in August 2016, and made only 300 cases, so if you want to try it, best hurry up and source a bottle.

But it now is August, and the temperature and humidity often is above 90. My Ohio blood is too thick for this weather, and my thirst turns to lighter fare. I won’t say no to a hop-bomb IPA, or a whiskey, for that matter. What really appeals, however, are drinks that are cold and crisp.

A bottle of Proud Pour Sauvignon Blanc ($18) showed up at my door a few months ago, and it well fit the bill. It noses of grapefruit and paired well with salads and roast vegetables. All the more satisfying is that buying a bottle helps fund the growth of more oysters, with which this wine pairs well.

I accidentally made the acquaintance of Zardetto Z Brut recently, which was happy luck. This bargain ($13) prosecco really hit the spot as I sweltered over a grill loaded with dogs and burgers.

I have enjoyed many rosé wines this summer. A decade ago you’d be lucky to find a couple in your local wine shop. Now supermarkets may stock offer a half-dozen or more brands, most of which are priced between $8 and $15. Brands I have tried (and whose names I recall) include Gerard Bertrand, Famille Perrin Reserve, and La Vieille Ferme. In my experience, it is hard to go wrong with rosé — I do not recall once buying a bottle and thinking, “Ugh, this is a disappointment.” (That has happened with plenty of red wines.)

No recitation of hot weather drinks recommendation would be complete without the gin and tonic. A Bombay or Tanqueray and tonic with a slice of lime is a wonderous thing. Those who want to spice up the old G&T have a wealth of options, what with the flood of new gins and the arrival of some really remarkable tonics (e.g., Fever-Tree).

Yes, summer is here, and the heat is on. But who needs water with so many other delicious, refreshing choices?

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at R Street Institute and heads its alcohol policy reform program. He is the author of Moonshine: A Global History (2017) and Whiskey: A Global History (2010). This column previously appeared on the American Spectator.

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Warming Winter Whiskeys

clyde-may-old-tub-angels-envy-reducedI am a seasonal drinker. What tastes best to me in the summer swelter is not what I hoist in the chillier months. Since the cold began its bite some weeks back, I have not had a single gin drink, for example, despite it being a spirit I adore.

Mostly, my glass of late has been filled with whiskeys. Bourbon tastes especially delicious during the dark months. I picked up a handsome package of Calumet Farm Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey (86 proof), which came with two nice glasses. It proved a bit of a disappointment—the flavor was thin and not very nuanced. Who exactly makes this Bourbon is far from clear—the rear label lists “Western Spirits” and “Three Springs Bottling Company.” Google those and you don’t get much. There is no Western Spirits distillery, so maybe this bourbon was bought from Heaven Hill. (Rating: Not good)

I got much more satisfaction from Clyde May Straight Bourbon Whiskey (92 proof). May, as many of you likely know, was a famed Alabama moonshiner who operated between the 1950s and 1980s. His son Kenny took the business legal, but not before running into some troubles with the law himself. Clyde May bourbon is made by Conecuh Ridge Distillery, and is aged in heavily charred barrels. It offers an intense apricot and nutmeg notes, and costs about $40 a bottle. (Rating: Very good)

A friend brought me a bottle of Old Tub sour mash, which one has a hard time finding beyond the grounds of the Jim Beam Distillery. This bottled in Bond whiskey is good stuff—a 100 proof, 4-year old spirit that tastes of corn, vanilla, barrel char, and apple. (Rating: Very good) Why is it called “Old tub”? Bourbon historian Chuck Cowdery explains:

“In 1892, Jacob’s grandson, David M. Beam, transferred the family distillery to his sons James and Park, and his son-in-law Albert Hart. They called their company Beam & Hart but gave their distillery the name of their best-selling brand, Old Tub Bourbon. As whiskey marketers are wont to do, these newly large scale commercial distillers tried to cast themselves as old-timey. Jack Beam, an uncle to Jim, Park, and Al, called his brand (and distillery) ‘Early Times’ and used terms like ‘hand made’ and ‘old fire copper’ to suggest timeless craftsmanship. His nephews’ ‘Old Tub’ was a reference to the wooden tubs in which mash was cooked, laboriously stirred by hand. Historic Old Tub labels show the mash being stirred by a dark-skinned worker, possibly a slave. The modern version just shows the tub.”

Last year, I crowed over Angel’s Envy in the Spectator. Here I will do it again. This year they released a cask strength (124.6 proof) version of their port-barrel aged bourbon. Only 8,000 bottles came to market. It is an immense drink—on must add drop after drop of water to it to find the soft spot where the flavors release. The size of this whiskey is the product of the considerable work used to produce it. Carin Moonin explains that Angel’s Envy is “made from a mash of 72 percent corn, 18 percent rye, and 10 percent malted barley. Once the bourbon has aged a minimum of four years (and up to six years) in white American Oak, it’s finished for up to six months in 60-gallon casks that were formerly used to mature port.” (Rating: Very good) Angel’s Envy cask strength runs about $180 a bottle.  Somewhere above Lincoln Henderson, the late distiller who invented this whiskey, is smiling.

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