Spirits of the Season wraps up 2016 with our “best of” list of spirits and wine ranked for cost and quality in each category.
We love finding affordable pours that taste delicious and are always good to have on hand in a well-stocked bar, or for gifts.
Monsters and Critics went to distilleries for visits and waded through a lot of sampled spirits and wines this year, and we found that the most expensive bubbly and whiskeys are not necessarily always the best.
Want to be pleasantly surprised and save a bit of cash? Take us shopping with you as we divide the winners by category and recommend you give them a try too!
Spirits by category:
Light, Sparkly and lower calorie
Gloria Ferrer: (SRP $22) Sonoma Brut, Blanc de Noirs, Blanc de Blancs and the pricier (SRP $37) Royal Cuvee for the money beat sparklers twice and three times their cost. Buy this by the case if you need a fabulous sparkling wine for an event! Or just for life in general.
The Ferrer winery in Sonoma, California, is a gift from bubbly heaven, as this Spanish family relocated their business to the Carneros AVA, where the location for the caves, vineyard and the surrounding attractions for wine tasters has ranked this one of the best places in California wine country to visit. Even their limited run Extra Virgin Olive Oils are fantastic!
The varietals in their sparkling category are each nuanced and different, some dry, some sweeter and some just toasty heaven with pinpoint bubbles and a wonderful nose.
Our personal favorite was the Blanc de Noirs, a pink-tinged, dryish sparkler with a versatile range, from cheese plates, charcuterie, appetizers to desserts.
Planning a wedding? Or just looking for good quality bubbles to pour this New Year’s Eve?
Look no further than this California gem.
Sake done with style (and gluten free): TyKu Coconut, Cucumber and Original Sake
We recommend Ty Ku Coconut, Cucumber and Original Sake, perfectly chilled or served room temperature, which are all light and refreshing. Do not heat this sake.
Ty Ku is a high-quality sake so do not store in the freezer. The nose is very delicate with a bit of Asian pear and lychee notes. Soft, mild, fruit and a hint of spice.
This is head and shoulders better than anything you might have had when out for sushi.
All the flavors have distinct differences, the Coconut sake is heavenly, and the Cucumber is refreshing — serve that with spicy Asian cuisine.
Please note that this is categorized as a Junmai Ginjo sake, meaning it is in the top 10 per cent of all for the spirit. Cool bottles too, and makes a fantastic gift.
Red and White Wine: Spain takes the wine win for December!
So many red wines, so little time. Allow us to suggest a few Spanish beauties that are deserving of your table:
Just in time for Christmas, our top pick is pricey ($75) but a true winner in the category: Marqués de Riscal’s Barón de Chirel Rioja 2010 — a red for the feast or gifting your host.
This special wine holds its own with pricey Bordeaux wines. You taste notes of spice and sweet, dry and well-balanced polished tannins as this full-bodied red has a hint of dark cherries and the palate is toasted, enhanced with spicy aromas for this ripe, dark berry laced sophisticated red. So very good!
Less expensive but equally fantastic:
Rueda Verdejo: Famous for its delicious dry white wines predominantly from Verdejo. This crisp clean white wine, Marqués de la Concordia Vega de la Reina 2015 (SRP $13) is made for Spain’s famous seafood tapas or anything salty and spicy.
Aragon is famous for its meat dishes, like fried serrano ham dipped in tomato sauce. A Garnacha like the Bodegas Tintoralba Capítulo 8 2014 (SRP $13) is a robust rich red that will pair with a variety of dishes. Tasty, well-polished tannins and a spicy dry red. Loved this.
The bar buddies: Must haves for serious cocktail mixologists
Emilio Lustau Don Nuno Dry Oloroso Sherry – Spanish sherry, dry and perfect, this walnut and chocolate-tinged chestnut magic is divine and finishes with the perfect acidity making it one of our favorite new finds for this category. Try this and forever change your opinion about sherry!
Campari – This is a must-have, a bar staple, a timeless classic and perfect to make many standards like a Negroni or a good aperitif. Make sure you keep one chilled at all times. Campari and soda dressed with some orange rind is a clean, lighter in calorie way to have a cocktail too. Thank you, Italy!
Cinzano 1757 Vermouth Rosso (Italy) – Need to make that Negroni or a Manhattan? Maybe try a little quality vermouth on the rocks? Look no further.
This is a highly rated (94 point average) red vermouth we strongly recommend. Cardamom, chamomile, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, nutmeg and orange peel make this fortified aromatic wine a lovely addition to the bar.
Keep chilled when opened.
Cynar Ricetta Originale (Italy) – Try this! A Cynar Manhattan is an Italian version of this classic. Make it with the Cinzano 1757 Rosso Vermouth, use a good mixer Rye whiskey like Wild Turkey Rye:
1/2 ounce Cynar
2 ounces Wild Turkey Rye
3/4 ounce Cinzano Rosso vermouth
1 Luxardo or Maraschino cherry
Method: build in cocktail shaker with ice, strain and serve in a cold Martini glass.
The Whiskey List
American Rye – USA
Wild Turkey Rye is inexpensive and spicy, perfect for building classics like Old Fashions, Sazeracs and Manhattans. When you need to make some great cocktails and love a spicy rye, this is your winner.
Bourbon – USA
Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon (107 proof, aged 7 years) – Named after Bourbon legend Jim Beam’s grandnephew, Baker Beam. Bottled at 53.5% ABV (107 proof) at around $55 a bottle, this spicy sweet smooth powerhouse of a bourbon is made for sipping.
Basil Hayden’s Straight Bourbon (80 proof) is younger and less aged – a very drinkable plum, fig and spice note laced whiskey that has a sweetness which is slight but pronounced when mixed.
A small batch bourbon that is around $50 retail.
Irish Whiskey – Ireland
Redbreast Single Pot Still (aged 12 years) – Spicy, creamy, rounded and fruity… almost a Cognac experience. A revelation and a sin to mix with anything, except maybe one cube of ice if your preference. Well done, Ireland! SRP $56.
Redbreast Sherry Finish Lustau Edition Whiskey – An amazing creamy pot still aged whiskey which imparts fruit and chocolate notes of the resting sherry casks it gets happy in and melds this whiskey into a solid sipper.
Deserving of a cold night, fire and good friends to share this magic with. Exceptional.
Oloroso sherry soaked Spanish oak is where all whiskey should wind up to rest in our opinion. SRP $69.
Jameson Caskmates – Jameson Irish Whiskey is a standard bearer, in our opinion, with their Caskmate varietal — which is a spicier lovelier version of the basic Jameson — definitely of note.
This company is also taking the musical route with their branding, as Jameson Music is promoting up and comers and established musicians who embody the spirit of Sine Metu: The Jameson family motto, which means “Without Fear”.
Jameson is branching out their brand, not only as an excellent Irish ambassador to whiskey but by giving artists a stage for their music to be seen and heard.
Curated by Grammy Award winner, Gary Clark Jr., select musicians are featured at rare performances around the country as Jameson helps them build their legendary name, too.
Scotland the brave, the Scotch selection
Laphroaig Cairdeas Madeira is a beautiful scotch whisky. This is a profoundly grown up and epicurean delight as notes of the sea and slight red fruit influence have netted a medium bodied scotch like no other.
Earthy peat and sea air make this a true eau de vie to sip. Never mix this with anything!
You also taste slight red apple influence underscored with licorice, black pepper in master distiller John Campbell’s limited run of sea kissed eau de vie (Cairdeas is friendship in Gaelic).
Less peaty Scotch finished and aged in sherry casks that are exceptional
Aberlour A’Bunadh – Cask strength matured in Spanish Oloroso sherry butts non-chill filtered scotch is as close to heaven on earth as a scotch lover can get, and at about $89 SRP it gives Balvenie Doublewood a run for its money, costing half of what that does. So very good!
Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt – distilled in Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. A double first fill sherry makes this a darker and more cognac-like spirit.
One of our favorites, serve neat and taste the Orkney Islands in their windswept heather and sea kissed majesty. $65 SRP.
Fancy Finished Cognac
Martell Blue Swift is one of the best expressions on the market, and you don’t have to be loaded to buy it.
Such a lovely and sophisticated expression and tasted like it cost three times more expensive!
Beefeater Original – There are a million gins out there. Stay true to this London Dry styled gin which covers all the bases and is a classic and bestseller for good reason.
Cardamom, juniper, pepper, and licorice with coriander and angelica root, this is a melange of all the proper gin aromatics that make this spirit a joy to drink when a clean refreshing cocktail is needed.
Beefeater Burrough’s reserve oak rested gin – Richer, fruitier and more complex, this gin is distilled by hand in one of James Burrough’s original copper pot stills, #12 with its miniature 268-liter capacity, using the original Beefeater recipe it is rested in Lillet casks. E
xpensive but for gin lovers well worth a try. SRP $73.
Rums for the season
Bayou Spiced Rum – Notes of vanilla, butterscotch and a balanced spiciness with nutmeg, cardamom and ginger, this is a perfect egg nog buddy or added to some mulled wine or Glogg.
It’s a very respectable and fine spiced rum to have on hand for the cold months. SRP $20.
Bayou Satsuma rum liqueur – Throw a float of this in a margarita or mix with other spirits for a citrus sweet flavor explosion. SRP $20.
Mezcal Alacran – is a smoky, sultry sophisticated winner. Mezcal Alacran was awarded with a Double Gold Medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits competition and each bottle is hand numbered and labeled.
Here is a fantastic holiday finisher to end our best of 2016 list:
MEZCAL ALACRAN ESPRESSO COCKTAIL
45 ml (1.5 ounce) Mezcal Alacran
15 ml (.5 ounce) Coffee Liqueur
30 ml (1 ounce) Espresso
Pour the drink into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake for 30 seconds and then gently pour into a cocktail glass.