The Best New Spirits of 2011

Paul Blow

I don't think wine makes a great gift. Its perceived value is tarnished by the way bottles are casually dealt out at the door by dinner party guests upon arrival. However, I do think fine spirits make splendid gifts. Elegant bottles can be found in whatever price range suits your fancy—from $30 on up—and, even better, a spirit makes a lasting impression, since it's unlikely to be consumed right away. Here are my picks of the year's best new spirits.

Angel's Envy Bourbon (about $45): Created by Lincoln Henderson—former master distiller for the Brown-Forman Corporation, with successes like Woodford Reserve and Old Forester under his belt—Angel's Envy is a personal project. I'm not always the biggest bourbon fan, but I loved this whiskey. While all the expected flavors are there—vanilla, spice, berries—I was blown away by the texture and structure of the whiskey. For something so complex, it was wonderfully tight-knit, taking a lengthy journey of sensation down the tongue. Full-blown, it's also got an element of gentlemanly restraint, as anyone who's spent time with Mr. Henderson would rightfully expect.

Angel's Envy Bourbon

Brugal 1888 Rum (about $50): Brugal is the rum of the Dominican Republic, but it's been some time since there was a new version released to the U.S. The number 1888 is the year that the company was founded, and this is a spirit worthy of such a commemoration. It takes a page out of the playbook of many Scotch whiskies, finishing the rum's aging in sherry barrels as opposed to the typical American oak. The result is something a little more nuanced than the average aged rum. The nutty, tawny notes from the sherry give the rum's sweet cane flavors a nice burnishing of complexity and sophistication. There's depth and richness in the cane aromas. Blended from lots aged between 5 and 14 years, this is a sipping rum. In cocktails, however, it could be treated like a whiskey—it would make a splendid Old Fashioned or Palmetto (basically a rum Manhattan).

Brugal 1888 Rum

St. George Spirits Gins ($35 each): The popular indie distillery on Alameda Island in the San Francisco Bay finally stepped into the gin market. Given Master Distiller Lance Winters' celebrated willingness to distill anything and everything, it's a little surprising it took St. George so long to create a gin. But when it did, it did so big time, with three separate gins: Terroir, Botanivore, and Dry Rye. The Terroir is an ode to the beauty of the Bay Area, a brambly gin made with locally foraged Douglas fir, bay laurel, sage, and other plants native to the area. And it really does smell like a hike on Mount Tamalpais. Botanivore is loaded with 19 botanicals and is overwhelmingly lush while preserving a lovely balance. The Dry Rye is unique: strong on juniper but balanced on a foundation of malty pot-distilled rye. It's reminiscent of a genever but has its own signature. Each of these is a great gift, but the whole set? That would be a knockout.

St. George Spirits Gin

Hakushu Japanese Whisky (about $50): I'm a lover of Japanese whiskies—the best are reminiscent of Scotch, but with their own beautiful Japanese sense of restraint—so it was with great excitement that I learned that Hakushu would finally be imported to the States. It's a single malt from a distillery set high in a woodsy mountain range north of Tokyo; it uses peated malt in its mash, and therefore takes on a slightly smoky cast that goes nicely with its hints of pear and spice.

Hakushu Japanese Whisky

Rhuby Liqueur ($36): Art in the Age, a Philadelphia artist collective that also produces organic spirits, previously remade root beer to its original alcoholic specifications with Root. Now they bring us Rhuby, a spirit based on a 1770s recipe for a spiced-up rhubarb tea invented by John Bartram, the Pennsylvania botanist. Rhuby is something entirely unique, blending herbal and sweet characteristics into a surprisingly refreshing liqueur. Its pale pink color suggests springtime, but grapefruit, remember, is a winter fruit. So get your citrus rolling, as Rhuby is a wonderful mixer along with things like soda, tonic, and gin.

Rhuby Liqueur

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.