By Charles Passy
Last Update: 2:01 PM ET Dec 13, 2012
The All-American bottle
While there s no shortage of sips made in the good ol U.S.A., some have a more distinctly American flavor and character than others. When it comes to whiskey, that means bourbon and among the best bourbons we ve tasted recently is Booker s Bourbon from the Small Batch Collection ($50), which is part of the Jim Beam lineup. This is an overproof whiskey, meaning it has a higher than normal alcohol content (80 for most bourbons) it comes in at 127 proof. But it s also an incredibly smooth and supple one a little sweet, a little fruity, but never overpowering in any respect. (If the alcohol scares you off, you can always cut the drink with water or ice.) Looking for a wine alternative? Consider just about anything from California that bears the stamp of Philippe Melka, a Bourdeaux-born winemaker who has found his true identity in America. Among Melka s latest: the silken 2010 CJ Cabernet Sauvignon ($55) from his own Melka Wines and the 2009 Black Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon ($125), praised by Wine Enthusiast for its explosive flavors, from Parallel Napa Valley. (See a video of MarketWatch s Charles Passy discussing The 12 Bottles of Christmas .)
The South American Bottle
In recent years, South American wines have become a new favorite for those looking for solidly made reds and whites without the sky-high prices. The Lapostolle winery in Chile has been a consistent leader in the region, especially for its versions of carmenere the red varietal often known as the lost grape of Bordeaux. Now, the label has put together a Lapostolle Collection of three of its carmeneres (two bottles each six bottles total for $200) that s designed to show the range of the grape, with the selected wines coming from different locales such as the Andes, Apalta and Marchigue. The label calls these bottles playful geographic discoveries. We d call them a smart way to introduce quality Chilean wine to a budding oenophile who knows only European or Californian vino.
The Perfectly Packaged Bottle
Don t you love how clever spirits brands can get with their combo packages during holiday time? But while we ve had our fill of gift sets that include the usual glasses or cocktail shakers, we don t think we ve seen one that comes with a signed Annie Leibovitz print. Enter The Macallan, one of our favorite single-malt Scotches. The brand has just released its Masters of Photography: Annie Leibovitz Edition the third in a series of special packages that marry the mastery of two great art forms, Scotch-making and photography. Included in this combo is a rare, older expression of the whiskey the expressions vary (there are actually four Leibovitz editions) along with a Leibovitz print from a session with Scottish actor Kevin McKidd (his hometown is in Macallan s backyard). Leibovitz s photos also grace the bottles themselves. The price? A rather steep $2,750, but if you want your Macallan sans photos, we d suggest the Sherry Oak 18 Years Old ($150) a marvelous sip with hints of dried fruits, spice and smoke.
The Canadian Bottle
We love Canadian whiskey for its very un-Scotch-like character it s typically smooth and well-suited for mixing. But we love Crown Royal Maple Finished ($25) for an added reason namely, the maple flavor that gives this whiskey a gentle boost of sweetness. No, it s not a breakfast whiskey (we wouldn t want this on pancakes), but it s a pleasing alternative to a liqueur a whiskey for non-whiskey fans, in other words. Oh, and if you re looking for more maple but with slightly more of the taste of grain consider the Tap 357 Canadian Maple Rye Whiskey ($30).
The Explorer s Bottle
There s probably no bottle with a better backstory than MacKinlay s Shackleton ($180). When you sip it, you re taking in a mouthful of history literally. It seems that when famed explorer Ernest Shackleton set forth on his 1907 expedition to Antarctica, he knew he needed something other than a heavy winter coat to keep him warm. So he brought along a few bottles of MacKinlay s Rare Old Highland Malt. Jump ahead to 2007: An Antarctic research team combing through the adventurer s hut discovers a cache of Shackleton s remaining bottles (frozen, of course). The contents are analyzed and blender Richard Paterson of Whyte & McKay (the distillers behind The Dalmore brand) is given the task of re-creating the whiskey. The resulting limited-edition release, dubbed The Discovery, proved so popular that a second similar whiskey, dubbed, The Journey, has been added to the line. All that might make the whiskey noteworthy enough, but MacKinlay s Shackleton is a pleasing sip in its own right a blended whiskey that s light in color and fairly mild in taste (one reviewer took note of its distinct banana character and we d hardly disagree). The old-timey packaging the bottle is encased in straw adds a nice visual note.
The Peppermint Bottle
If there s a flavor we most associate with the holidays, it s probably peppermint. But peppermint schnapps and cr me de menthe have never quite worked for us as stand-alone sips they re just too, well, minty. The solution? Cut that flavor with a little brandy. That s what the spirits makers at Minnesota-based Phillips Distilling have been doing since 1963 the end product is a winter warmer/curiosity called Sno Shoe Grog ($10.99). The brand has had a low profile in recent years so much so that most sippers haven t even been aware of its existence. But Phillips has wisely reintroduced the grog in 2012 as part of a holiday push. Just add snow for the perfect winter moment.
The Ginger Bottle
Ginger is another natural holiday flavor. It s also a natural curative. Put the two together and you have the King s Ginger ($40) a liqueur that s based on a concoction served to King Edward VII as a way to keep him warm and contented (presumably, during a bitter British winter). All we know is that it s got the right boost of ginger flavor spicy, but not overly so. It s also a very good base for cocktails, especially of the holiday sort think the King s Winter Cup (a mix of the ginger liqueur with apple cider and apple juice, plus a cinnamon stick for a garnish).
The Japanese Bottle
We associate Japan with sake, its trademark rice wine. But the country is also big on whiskey and not just the kind it imports. The best known of Japan s native brands is Suntory (yes, the whiskey maker of Lost in Translation fame). And in our humble view, the best of Suntory s whiskeys is Hakushu ($60), a 12-year-old single malt that has a subtle but beguiling degree of peat call it soft smoke. Still, if it s sake you seek, what about sake with a twist? That s what TY KU offers with its Coconut Nigori Sake ($16 for the full-size bottle) the traditional rice wine with a tropical kick. It s certainly good for mixing, but we actually prefer it straight and slightly chilled an East-meets-the-islands cocktail unto itself. (And there s celebrity connection to TY KU as well: CeeLo Green is one of the brand s owners.)
The Chocolate Bottle
Yes, chocolate in liquid form in this case, courtesy of Marie Brizard Liqueurs. Its Chocolat Royal ($28) has a more restrained sweetness than what we ve encountered in other chocolate-flavored spirits perhaps it s because high-grade cocoa beans are the source of the flavoring and nothing artificial is added to the final product. As for mixing, the after-dinner cocktail possibilities are many Brizard s American importer especially recommends a German Chocolate Cake Martini made with Frangelico, vodka and half and half. But we think the liqueur works equally well as a grown-up ice-cream topping.
The Mini Bottle
The problem with buying a single bottle of wine as a gift is just that it s a single bottle and there s a good chance your pick may not hit the mark. TastingRoom.com offers a different way to buy wine and a much smarter one in many respects. It sells samplers ($20 to $40) that feature six glass-size portions (1.7 oz.) of different wines. The groupings can be by varietal and location (e.g. pinot noirs from Oregon s Willamette Valley) or by style (e.g. crispy and dry whites). Especially noteworthy are two new samplers curated for Tasting Room by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse a Holiday Party Sampler ($40) and an Everyday Sampler ($33) with his favorite wines from around the country. (We like that his Everyday goes beyond California to include a semi-dry Riesling from Dr. Frank, a winery from the very trendy at least among oenophiles Finger Lakes area of upstate New York.) And if your gift recipient ends up liking a particular bottle, there s no saying you can t buy them a bigger one either through your local wine shop or through Tasting Room, which carries some of its minis in standard-size versions (and offers the option to add a gift card to your sampler purchase for this very reason).
The Bottle of Beer
Make that a big bottle. Each year, Anchor Brewing Company releases a Christmas ale with an ever-changing but winter-inspired recipe. The 2012 edition (the 38th one) is noteworthy for its hints of pine drinking it is a bit like enjoying a good beer and smelling a Christmas tree all at once. (But the pine is nicely woven into a larger fabric of winter flavors many beer buffs detect cinnamon and nutmeg, but all Anchor will say is that it s a darkly spiced brew.) Just as important as the taste, however, is the packaging each year, the brewery commissions artist Jim Stitt to draw a different tree for the label (in 2012, it s a Norfolk Island pine). There s also the size: The brew is available in the traditional six-pack (around $11), but if you want to make a true statement, go for the magnum (around $17), which equates to 1.5 liters of beer-y goodness.
The Bottle Accessory
A bottle is all well and good, but what if you re looking for something to complement it? A book is one possibility and Mark Spivak s Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Globe Pequot Press, $16.95) is our pick. It s a well-written tome that not only tells the stories behind the classic sips from moonshine to Grey Goose vodka it also provides historical cocktail recipes, created during the era each highlighted spirit came of age. Speaking of moonshine, what about crafting a spirit from scratch say, a flavored vodka? The VodkaZinger ($26) allows you to do just that well, you have to provide the vodka, but the gizmo makes it easy to infuse the spirit with everything from citrus fruits to cucumbers. (It works by grinding the fruit, vegetable or spice, before letting it seep into the liquid no straining is necessary, since that function is built into the design of the appliance.) Finally, if you re really looking to top off a gift, why not buy you guessed it a quality topper (or stopper, to be more exact)? Patron Spirits the brand behind the premium tequila has partnered with fashion designer John Varvatos on a limited-edition one ($53), made of metal and shaped like a guitar a rocking item in every sense of the term and a great stocking stuffer for the spirits drinker.