High-Proof, Spirited Gifts

Paul Blow

Del Maguey Tobala mezcal

Berkshire Mountain Ethereal gin

High West 16-year-old rye whiskey

Spirits are my gift of choice for the holidays. Unlike wine, a bottle of liquor can last for months, even years. It’s nice to give someone something to drink, and to know that he or she will be enjoying it for a good long time. And spirits can be exotic and unusual, more of the shock of the new than familiar old wine. But it’s not enough to just wrap up a bottle of Jack Daniel’s; selection is key. So here I’m going to offer a few suggestions in some spirit categories that will make surefire great gifts for your boozy friends.

Mezcal. Yes, tequila’s still cool, but not like it was a few years ago. Today it’s strong, smoky artisanal mezcal that’s in ascent. People are asking for it at bars now more than ever (as confirmed by my own experience and the reports of other bartenders) and there are new mezcal-promoting venues such as Mayahuel in Manhattan and Las Perlas, set to open in LA in 2010. Rare and beautiful new brands are beginning to proliferate, bottled directly from the ancient stills of the artisanal distillers in the mountains of Oaxaca. Mezcal is a complex and at times difficult spirit to understand, but if your friends really love tequila, they’ll get it. Costing between $40 and $80, these bottles are pricey, but worth every penny. A good mezcal is more complex, exotic, and singularly delicious than the best tequila. I adore Mezcalero, a beautiful new product from Craft Distillers, while the Del Maguey line continues to be a standard-bearer (my favorite is Tobala). And the most affordable high-quality mezcal is Sombra.

Gin. Are there still people alive who have yet to discover gin? Well, if judged by the proliferation of new brands, the spirit appears to be flourishing. My favorite discovery this year has been the fantastic new company Berkshire Mountain Distillers, located in the scenic hills of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. A one-man operation, the distillery has what it takes to be great: a pure, fresh water source, a great still, and a very determined still man. The result? Two gins that are among the best on the market. Greylock is a balanced and complex London dry–style gin. It has that same balanced feel as Plymouth, but with even more clarity in the expression of its botanicals. The limited-edition Ethereal gins are take-no-prisoners, juniper-forward liquors, which will more than satisfy your most rabid gin-loving friend.

Whiskey. A couple of years ago, High West Distillery burst onto the scene with a portfolio of rye whiskey that seemed like a summer downpour considering the famous rye drought. The distillery, which is operating in Utah, had found a cache of old ryes somewhere and blended, bottled, and offered these as it waited for its own new stocks to age. The result? Some rare and delicious rye whiskey, a lovely gift for the American-whiskey-lover in your life. I’m particularly down with the 16-year-old, with its incredibly high rye content (80 percent) and its superspicy and aromatic profile. A drop of water opens it up beautifully.

If your friend or loved one is a Scotch drinker and you’re in the mood to splurge, I couldn’t recommend anything more than the Port Ellen 8th Release, a 29-year-old that is one of the most wickedly complex but mystically balanced whiskies I’ve ever tasted. Yes, it costs around $400, but it’s from a celebrated distillery that closed down in 1983. Every year Diageo, the owner, releases a new edition of old stocks. The 9th just came out, though I haven’t tasted it. I have tasted the 8th, though, and it’s as beautiful an Islay as you can find; the telltale peat, iodine, and seaweed are there, but their mineral and smoke is perfectly counterbalanced by soft honey, lemon, orange, and about a million other delicious things. (If you really want to splurge, the new Macallan Lalique III is a 57-year-old single malt that comes in a handmade crystal decanter and costs $15,000; I tasted the whisky, one of the oldest you’ll ever find, and it did leave me feeling quite excited about life.)

These are bottles as delicious as they are uncommon. All are obtainable, though most won’t be sold at the corner shop. But if you order now, you’ll be sure to have them in time for the holiday festivities, whatever holiday you might be celebrating.

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.