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The Boozy Holiday Gift Guide, 2015 Edition

For all the supposed joy of the holiday season, gift shopping can bring out the Grinch in the best of us. Regardless of how well you think you know your friends and loved ones, that perfect item remains stubbornly elusive. Your dad clearly doesn’t need another tie, and a gift card to the iTunes store is far too impersonal to carry any lasting significance.

But there’s a simple solution: booze. It’s fun to shop for, everyone loves getting it, and it’s readily available all across town. It also runs the gamut of pricing, so you can land on an appropriate bottle for naughty and nice alike. Here’s a look at some stocking stuffers this winter to please everyone from casual acquaintance to devoted spouse. Invest appropriately, and you might even end up turning the former into the latter.

Like most brown liquors, Cognac is enjoying a renaissance in New York. The double-distilled grape spirit from southern France is turning up in more cocktails, while it continues to reveal its virtue and accessibility as a soulful sipping beverage. There’s also some damn good deals to be had from quality producers. Celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, Hennessy unleashed a collector’s edition release that retailed at $650 a bottle. It flew off the shelves. The elegant expression, packaged accordingly, is befitting of a loved one. But if you’re shopping for a co-worker, or a semi-decent friend, the brand offers their VS Holiday Gift Box at a far more affordable pricepoint. The juice inside, aged for at least two years in French oak, will surely deceive the gifted into thinking you spent at least double the $32 it commands at most liquor stores.

At a similar price, Hochstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye Whiskey is a veritable steal. The blend incorporates grain spirit from across North America, much of which fetches a statelier sum when packaged in prettier bottles. Don’t fall for the hype — it’s what inside that counts. And the rye lovers in your life will surely appreciate Cooper Spirits’ mixture of slightly spicy stock, ranging from four to 15 years in age. A throwback label imbues the gift with a nostalgic edge, best appreciated by seasoned drinkers. Give this one to dad — or grandma, if she’s a badass.

While nobody wants coal in their stocking, Scotch lovers wouldn’t necessarily mind a similar flavor profile in their whisky bottle. Oblige them with Bowmore Small Batch Single Malt. It’s a meditation on bourbon-like tones of oak and vanilla, peered through the peat bogs of the Scottish isles. Straddling that chasm between smoky and sweet, it exists as a sensible Scotch for bourbon aficionados. Best of all, it sits on the shelf at the inviting price of $40 a bottle. A tremendous value for any single malt scotch, particularly one arriving in any easily wrap-able gift box.

Beer, too, can be a thoughtful present. Though a six pack of Coors Light might be pushing it, craft beer connoisseurs in your circle are likely clamoring for something a bit more exclusive. Seek out the 2015 editions of the Bourbon County Brand Stouts, from Goose Island. Aged for a year in ex-bourbon barrels, these heavy-hitting dark ales upwards of 10% in ABV, age beautifully, and are always in high demand after their annual release, the day after Thanksgiving. Here in the city, you’ll be able to find the original stout, as well as the Barleywine, and coffee-infused variations at most high-end bottle shops. They’ll typically range from $10-15 a pop, so you won’t be too intimidated to secure the entire set. Thick on the tongue, with lingering notes of vanilla, caramel, and roasted cocoa, it’s dessert disguised as beer.

If you’re looking for something seasonally-inspired to bring to an upcoming holiday party, Brooklyn Brewery and Captain Lawrence Brewing out of Westchester, each produce their own take on a Winter Ale. Brooklyn’s is a take on a scotch-style beer, with creamy notes of caramelized malt. Captain Lawrence’s is a solid example of a winter warmer, brewed with tongue-tingling spices reminiscent of nutmeg and clove. Both beers are in bottle throughout the city, retailing at under $12 a six pack.

If you want to make your gift a bit more immersive, The New York Beer and Brewery Tour is just the ticket. For $115, attendees get a four-hour adventure highlighting a few of the best brewpubs and beer bars of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Beer, food tastings, and  transportation are included.

For something a bit more playful, if not far more expensive, the Whisky Advent Calendar from Master of Malt is a welcome surprise. The 24 day countdown to Christmas is honored with two dozen, wax-sealed 3cl drams of single malt, each hidden behind their own cardboard window. The set, available for $188 online, includes an exclusive 50-year-old Scotch, Japanese whisky, and other rarities, some of which go for as much as $500 in full bottle format. If you haven’t ordered it already, fret not, whisky lovers will surely have little problem playing catchup to arrive at the proper day of the calendar. Alternatively, you could enjoy them all on Christmas, to make your in-laws that much more tolerable.

Dom Perignon Luminous Collection
Dom Perignon Luminous Collection

No alcohol crams as much festivity into the bottle as bubbly. And the world’s most renowned Champagne brand has packaged something special this winter to light up the lives of your loved ones. Dom Perignon’s Luminous Collection includes a ten year old vintage, branded with it’s own backlit label, available in several colors. The $250 bottle isn’t overly extravagant, and it expertly navigates the thin line between classy and flashy. Plus, there’s the added bonus that whomever your gifting it to might pop it open in your presence. A gift that keeps on giving. Even after the bottle runs out, it still makes a radiant mantle piece. The glowing glass is now only offered on-premise, but Shoppers Wines in Union, New Jersey is currently offering a limited allotment on discount for December. Easier on the wallet is Veuve Cliquot Brut’s holiday gift bag. The special packaging includes a space to sign and dedicate the offering, and the water resistant packaging doubles as a makeshift ice box.

 

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The Distilled-Beer Program at the Owl Farm Bar in Park Slope Is Unlike Anything in NYC

There are many reasons to fall in love with the Owl Farm (297 9th Street, Brooklyn; 718-499-4988). Centered in the heart of Park Slope’s energetic 9th Street, it makes the most of its prime location, offering a cozy interior with comfortable seating and exposed-brick façades, an eclectic cross-section of craft beer and spirits, and pinball machines. It’s even dog-friendly. Yet these attributes are common to many a Brooklyn-based watering hole. To set his bar apart, managing partner Steven Baird compiled a distilled beers program unlike anything else in the city.

“I was tired of seeing the same collection of spirits at most bars, so I decided to bring the liquor program in line with our beer program,” says Baird. “Since the first step of making most whiskies is making a wash [basically, an un-hopped beer] it was a logical step to explore distilled beers. It’s been a fun journey tracking these things down and adding them to the list.”

That list features a dozen distillates, most of which rotate depending on availability. Prices range from $8 to $12 for two-ounce pours that hover in the traditional spirits realm of 80 proof. The liquors are produced almost exclusively by third parties, but generally in close cooperation with the breweries. Oregon-based Rogue Brewery is an exception, crafting both their popular Dead Guy ale as well as the whiskey they distill utilizing the same malt bill.

Although he frequently switches them out, Baird typically stocks a few expressions well suited to entry-level experimenters seeking to get their toes wet. The Kiuchi No Shizuku, for example, is distilled from Hitachino White ale and offers gentle notes of orange zest and coriander, pleasing to most palates.

For the seasoned single Islay malt fans, distilled Aecht Schlenkerla amplifies the smoked malt components of its base beer into something resembling peatiness. The distillate is mellowed in barrels for several months, giving it a whisky-like appearance to match its flavor.

There’s also selections suited to gin enthusiasts: Last month’s list featured Anchor Hop Head, a gin-like spirit subbing hops for juniper. Port lovers would migrate toward the Baladin Xyauyu Oro, an oxidized barleywine with sweet tannic characteristics.

And, of course, having a liquor derived from beer affords a unique opportunity to build the perfect boilermaker — always a crowd-pleaser. “The response has been extremely positive, especially when we pair a distillate with the base beer,” notes Baird. Currently, he is running a combo of Uerige Doppelsticke, a strong German altbier, with Uerige Stickum, its un-aged whiskey derivative. It might not remain on the rapidly evolving list by the time you arrive. But come to the Owl Farm with a sense of adventure and you won’t leave disappointed.


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Whisky Live at Chelsea Piers Tomorrow

Whether or not you spell it with an E, Whisky Live is a dream come true for any lover of the brown spirit of life. A tasting show that travels the globe over the course of the year, the three-and-a-half-hour event parks itself at Chelsea Piers tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. With over 300 whiskies — including small-batch bourbons, single-malt scotches, and Japanese rarities — the only drawback is having to deal with work on Thursday.

Tickets aren’t cheap; general admission fetches $119, and a $30 upcharge entitles you to VIP entrance at 5:30 p.m. But for that premium, attendees gain access to unlimited samples from brands far and wide, as well as three hours of buffeting, and live entertainment. While the specifics on the entertainment remain unclear (there will be bagpipes), the dinner spread promises to include carved brisket braised in Four Roses bourbon. With enough booze and beef, a puppet show would qualify as a perfectly reasonable live act.

For the higher-minded crowd, however, there will be three master classes offered throughout the event, each an hour in length. The first of the evening provides a glimpse into the evolution of scotch over the past five centuries. Later on, Balblair’s brand ambassador explains the philosophy behind vintage releases, before the concluding seminar delves into the effects of wood on whisky.

Assembling so many renowned spirits under one roof presents a welcome challenge: explore exclusive expressions that you have yet to experience, or head straight to the faithful go-tos? The answer is “yes.” You certainly won’t want to pass up new releases from local favorites like Hudson Whiskey, or Kings County — I’m hoping that the former bring their Double Charred and the latter their Peated Bourbon. But save room for faraway sensations such as Yamazaki and Nikka from Japan. Just don’t be afraid to use the spit bucket from time to time; Whisky Live reserves the right to remove anyone who doesn’t sample responsibly.

Live Entertainment at Whisky Live

Live Entertainment at Whisky Live

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Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey Hits Shelves in NYC

Earlier this autumn, Stranahan’s announced the distribution of its Colorado Whiskey within the five boroughs. When it comes to the brown stuff, New York is hardly suffering from any sort of shortage. So why should you care about this Denver-based brand hitting the shelves of your local liquor store? We asked Rob Dietrich, Stranahan’s Master Distiller, to help state the case. Decide for yourself.

A vital distinction between Dietrich’s whiskey and most of its American counterparts is the ingredients — what distillers refer to as a mash bill.

“We are very different from a Kentucky-style bourbon because we use a specialized mash bill of 100 percent malt barley, the majority of which is grown and malted in Colorado,” Dietrich points out. “A bourbon, by definition, is 51 percent corn and 49 percent grain, barley, or rye and has a very corn-forward flavor. We designed our whiskey to be similar to a scotch, but with a Rocky Mountain style, as we distill and age at 5,280 feet.”

So, for one, Stranahan’s can properly be regarded as an American single malt. But what impact does elevation have on distillation and barrel aging? “Our boiling temperatures are much different and there is less oxygen in the air at this elevation,” says Dietrich. “The aging process is definitely affected by this, as well as the dryness of the high-desert climate. This is why we climate-control our barrelhouse to maintain high humidity and heat for better spirit interaction with the wood.”

In addition to impressive technology, Stranahan’s also relies on good old-fashioned water to deliver a superior product. Sourcing hydration from nearby Eldorado Springs, the water primarily consists of Rocky Mountain runoff. “Every distiller will tell you that one of the key ingredients in every spirit is the water,” says Dietrich. “We have such great water here in Colorado — in my opinion, some of the best in the world. Colorado water is an important commodity and is key to the quality of our whiskey.”

New York is a particularly thirsty market, requiring a lot of water, but Dietrich feels he can meet that potential demand. “I recently attended WhiskyFest New York [on September 24], and there were an amazing amount of people who sought out our booth pleading with us to bring it to New York,” he says. “Keeping up with present demand in New York requires that I have a conversation with my past self to make sure we planned out our barrel production carefully enough. I believe we are up for the challenge!”

You read that correctly. Dietrich actually had to travel to the past, ripping open a corridor through the fabric of time and space itself to make sure there was enough whiskey for present-day New Yorkers. Now that’s dedication. In all seriousness, though, barrel-aging presents some insane risks: namely, having to plot out supply and demand projections years into the future — at a minimum.

Says Dietrich, “In order to fulfill the nationwide demand, we had to make projections about three to four years ago, and expand our mashing and fermentation, distillation, and barrel storage areas to increase our barrel production for future releases.”

But enough about the process, how does the stuff actually taste? I’ll handle this, as I’m currently sipping on a dram, struggling to type with one hand:

The barley mash bill isn’t immediately apparent on the nose. You’d be forgiven for detecting an almost bourbon-like sweetness wafting up from the glass. But the grain hits the palate with immediate impact. An almost undetectable spice washes over the tongue right before a burnt caramel finish holds fast to the back of the throat, evoking a Highland heritage — fitting for a whiskey of Rocky Mountain origin. This is a highland of a different color.

I’m sold. And certainly I’m not the only New Yorker. At WhiskyFest, Dietrich heard such high praise as, “Bro, where can I get some of your awesome whiskey? It’s the best thing I’ve ever had, and the highlight of everything I’ve tried at this festival.” Bold words, when considering the other top-shelf products available that night.

There were also significantly less-savory ways in which folks expressed their devotion. “We had someone swipe a bottle off of our table,” Dietrich admits. “I’d say that’s a compliment in itself.”

If you’re looking to procure Stranahan’s without the five-finger discount, a 750-mL bottle will set you back about $60. It’s on the shelves now at Astor Wine & Spirits, Park Avenue Liquor, and Bottlerocket in the Flatiron. You can also tackle a tipple or two at Del Posto,
Locanda Verde, and Blue Smoke.