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.



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.


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.


Sella & Mosca Sardinian Wines

What comes to mind when one reads the word, “Sardinia”? Sardines? That island where Napoleon was exiled? (Actually, he cooled his heels in Elba.) Anything?

The difficulty of mentally associating much of anything with Sardinia is understandable—it’s a distant and difficult to characterize place. Officially a province of Italy, Sardinia is the second island in the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian constitution gives Sardinian considerable liberty to run its own affairs.

Less than 1.7 million people live on its 9,300 square miles, scattered in cities and small towns. Sardinia’s weather is sometimes tropical; palm and olive trees grow there, and turbulent storms blow in from the sea. But snow also falls in the highlands. Film stars sometimes holiday on Sardinia’s beaches, but the island also is spotted with a slew of NATO bases and installations, to the ire of some locals.

The cultural is similarly hard to peg for outsiders. Italian is the official language and is widely spoken, but there is a native Sardinian language which is more Latin-esque, and comes in varying dialects. Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, and various Africans all have landed on the island over the centuries. Unlike neighboring nations, Sardinia is more matriarchal than patriarchal. Women tend to be more educated than men, but the residential literacy rate is nearly 100 percent.

One unsurprising fact about Sardinia is that it, like its continental neighbors, makes wine. Lots of it.

Yet, Sardinian wine can be difficult to find in the United States. That is because much of the wine made in Sardinia is sold there or in Europe. Palm Bay International of Port Washington, New York imports Sella & Mosca wines. And America’s strong dollar might well induce more bottles to our shores. Which would be a good thing, since the wines are good and the atypical grapes give the palate something new.

So, suffice to say that when I recently had the chance to sample Sardinian wine I had no idea what to expect. The omnipresent Cabernet Sauvignon grows there, but most of the wines came from grapes  —Vermentino, Torbato, Carignano, Cannonau — that were at best vaguely familiar.

The eight wines…. Was it eight? Senator I cannot recall…. Anyhoo, the eight wines I tasted were produced by Sella & Mosca, Sardinia’s largest winery, which was founded a century ago. And I like everyone of them.

The two whites, La Cala Vermentino ($14) and Terre Bianche Torbato ($21) , were any interesting case in contrasts. La Cala has apricot and floral notes and was creamy in the mouth. Terre Bianche tasted of orange peel, apples, and was crisp. The latter was especially tasty with briny oysters.

The Sella & Mosca reds were very different from the fruit bombs one tends to find on American store shelves. A three-year old Terre Rare Carignano ($15) was a little dry, and showed blackberry and earth notes. Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva DOC was wonderfully musty—it was the taste equivalent of stepping into an old cellar where mushrooms were growing. Giovanni Pina, Sella & Mosca’s winemaker, outdid himself with Tanca Farra Alghero DOC 2011. This $27 bottle of wine blew me away as it balanced the rich fruit flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon against the earthy and leathery notes from the Cannonau grapes.

Finally, the high-end ($65 and up) Marchese di Villamarina DOC (2010, 2009, and 1999) offered a Sardinian take on Cabernet Sauvignon. Again, what one got was not the uber-tannic, fruit-forward cab model. Rather, the Marchese wines all showed modest fruit and interesting baking spices and tobacco notes. I was impressed, but I’m not the only one. Critics have deemed Marchese vintages excellent.

The next time you are perusing the drinks aisles or at a restaurant, look for one of these wines. I think you too will be impressed.