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.


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.


Angel’s Envy Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength

Angels Envy Bourbon Cask Strength
Some time in the 1990s bottles of whiskey finished in flavoring casks first landed at our door. They were Bowmore Scotch whiskies, some aged in barrels that once held Oloroso sherry, others spent time in casks that held port or Bordeaux red wine. (Use our search engine to locate our reviews of Bowmore Darkest, Dawn, Dusk, and Voyage.)

Not long afterward, Jameson 1780 Irish whiskey arrived—it too had been Oloroso cask finished.

Bourbon-makers did not take up finishing until more recently. They were content to leave their whiskeys in charred barrels the full-time. Then distiller Lincoln Henderson decided to finish fine Bourbon in port casks—thus Angel’s Envy was born.

We first tasted Angel’s Envy in 2011—and promptly pronounced it terrific. That was the 86.6 proof (43.3% ABV) version. A couple years later,  another critic declared Angels’ Envy the best booze on earth.

Here we have a monstrous incarnation of Angel’s Envy—a whopping 127.9 proof (63.95 ABV). This whiskey is amber tinted red, and is very palatable at full proof. Adding water releases various notes—honey, fig, nuts, corn… There’s a lot of there there. (Rating: Very Good)

Only 8,000 bottles were released to the world. Get one before it’s gone. You can read more at http://angelsenvy.com/, and you might be able to source a bottle with InternetWines.com.


Angel’s Envy and Jim Beam Devil’s Cut Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Most whiskey drinkers have heard abut the angel’s share—that portion of the spirit that evaporates while the spirit is aging in a cask.

Two new products have come to market in the past year that play off that nomenclature—Angel’s Envy and Jim Beam Devil’s Cut.  Both of these products are straight Bourbon whiskeys, which means they have spent not less than two years in barrel as required by federal regulations.

Angel’s Envy ($45 retail) is the more refined of the two products.  This Bourbon (86.6 proof) is aged four years in charred white oak barrels and then finished for three to six months in barrels that previously held port wine.  It is quite good and designed to be sipped neat or with perhaps a couple drops of water.  You might detect burnt orange, vanilla, and a bit of maple. Robust and delicious.  Knob Creek fans might be especially beguiled by this whiskey. (Rating ****1/4)



Jim Beam Devil’s Cut ($23 retail) is a 90 proof whiskey that is made by mixing six-year old Bourbon with the Devil’s Cut—that is, with Bourbon that is stuck inside the wood after after the barrel has been emptied.

The cynic might look at this is Beam finding a way to take a loss (trapped Bourbon) and monetize it.  The thinking drinker wants to know how the Bourbon is released from the wood and whether these barrels are then scrapped or resold to Scotch whisky-makers.

The casual drinker will care little about any of this and will want to know—is it any good?  It is.  Devil’s Cut tastes like Beam White label but it is more robust. The Bourbon flavors are more intense, and you can really taste wood.  This ornery whiskey is probably best taken with an ice cube.  (Rating ***1/2)

If you would like to acquire either of these Bourbons, please consider checking with our retailer.








Angel’s Envy is available in a limited number of states, which you can find listed here.