19 Excellent Bottles of Booze to Gift in 2019, According to Bartenders
Cuvee cask-aged single malts, Japanese plum whiskey, and a non-alcoholic botanical aperitif—bartenders reveal the bottles they hope to receive this year.
Holiday shopping can be a stressful time, so why not give a gift that takes the edge off just a little? Consider the diverse world of spirits. With endless styles and flavors, giving booze allows you to choose something uniquely personalized, undoubtedly useful, and most importantly, fun.
And who better to help you narrow down some bottles than the bartenders who serve them and know them best? We tapped several of our favorite drink-slingers from across the country (and beyond) to ask them what bottle of spirit or liqueur they’d hope to receive this year. The result is this eclectic guide of bottles that run the gamut of style, price, and origin.
Akashi Ume Plum Whisky
This sweet plum whiskey hails from the small oceanside town of Akashi, Japan, which is renowned for its long history of sake production. Founded in 1888, Eigashima Shuzo is Japan’s smallest whiskey producer. “If I got a bottle of Akashi Ume Plum Whisky, I’d be happy as a clam,” says Aaron Polsky, Los Angeles-based bartender and founder of the forthcoming LiveWire Drinks. “The Ume plum is an amazing mix of salt, sour, acid, sweet, and umami, and it brings the whiskey flavors together in a really interesting way—the whiskey makes for a really interesting stirred cocktail ingredient.”
Rey Campero Tobalá Mezcal
“The best and only bottle any bartender would want from Santa is a bottle of Rey Campero Tobalá,” says Jeret Peña, a San Antonio, Texas, cocktail pioneer and owner of Still Golden Social House. “When it’s cold outside, nothing beats a smoky glass of mezcal.” That’s a claim with some merit, and Rey Campero Tobalá is a highly coveted gem that features a wild agave—agave potatorum, which takes 13 years to mature—harvested and distilled in a small town in the southern highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. We suggest sipping this on straight to experience the wonderfully complex journey of citrus, cacao nibs, and fragrant spice.
Roger Groult “Venerable” Calvados
“I wouldn’t be upset looking into my stocking and finding anything coming out of France, sourced by Nicolas Palazzi,” says Tyson Buhler, national beverage director of Death & Co, referencing the rare spirits hunter’s PM Spirits. “But if I had to choose one bottle, Roger Groult’s 18-year-old Calvados would certainly make me happy. Very few things are better to brave the cold weather with than exceptionally made, mature apple brandy.” Crafted in the traditional methods of Calvados production, this full-bodied brandy is perfect for a fireside digestif. It comes from Jean-Roger Groult, whose family-owned farm in Pays d’Auge produces Calvados made with cider from their own orchards.
Watershed Bourbon Barrel Gin
Barrel-aged gin has had a moment in the past few years, bringing common flavors like vanilla, caramel, oak to the juniper-based spirit. "Watershed Bourbon Barrel Gin is a lovely gift,” recommends David Yee, beverage director at Oddfellows Liquor Bar in Columbus, Ohio. “It's the kind of balanced spirit that stands up in cocktails but also tastes great with tonic. It has the spiciness to make a great holiday drink.”
Tempus Fugit Crème de Banane
“Obviously, I’m a big fan of bananas in cocktails,” says Shelby Allison, owner of Chicago tropical cocktail bar Lost Lake. “I usually prefer the fresh variety straight out of the blender, but this new-ish banana liqueur is toasty, roasty, caramelized deliciousness. You can stir it with rum and bitters, or get straight to the point—drinking it over an ice cube after dinner.” For an elegant, out-of-the-box gift at just around $40, Tempus Fugit’s banana liqueur draws inspiration from 19th century techniques of small-batch distilling just-ripened bananas.
Glenfiddich Grand Cru Scotch
Glenfiddich, the world’s best-selling and most-awarded single malt, made waves with the release of this whisky as part of its core portfolio. The liquid spends 23 years in American oak barrels and ex-Sherry casks before being finished in French cuvée casks, giving it a distinctly sweet, bready quality. “Glenfiddich Grand Cru’s story combines three of my favourite things: whisky, sherry and champagne,” says Celia Schoonraad, proprietor and creative director of Singapore’s recently opened Barbary Coast SG. “It’s a perfect gift to give or receive. The light top notes and long finish combined with the richness we have come to know and associate with Glenfiddich ensures this is a tipple for everyone to enjoy.”
Powers Gold Label Whisky
“As a necessity around the holidays, I always keep a few extra bottles of my go-to Powers Gold Label around because it drinks both light and rich and it makes a brilliant Irish Coffee,” says Erik Hakkinen, owner and head bartender of Roquette in Seattle, Washington. Powers was one of the three Irish whisky brands that kept the category alive in the mid-20th century, when it would have otherwise gone extinct. Gold label is aged between five and six years in bourbon casks. For those gifting belatedly, the brand’s been teasing a new bottle design in early 2020.
Denizen Dark Vatted Rum
“I’m a huge fan of Denizen Dark Rum,” says author Shannon Mustipher, who’s also the beverage director of Glady’s Caribbean in Brooklyn, New York. “It’s a bold, earthy Guyana rum balanced with an aromatic rhum agricole, both from older distillers that stick to traditional production methods.” Indeed, Denizen fuses a 2- to 5-year-old rum from Guyana aged in ex-bourbon barrels with a funky, unaged rhum agricole from Martinique—showcasing the wonderful, near-unregulated diversity of the rum category. “My favorite thing about this rum, apart from its unique flavor profile,” Mustipher says, “is that it’s bottled at 100% ABV, making it ideal for cocktailing of all kinds: classics, tiki, and otherwise.”
What would a list of bartender recommendations be without Fernet Branca? Known unofficially as the bartender’s handshake—taking a shot of Fernet is a sign of mutual acknowledgment between two bartenders—the Italian amaro is also a fantastic post-feast digestif. “The botanicals used in Fernet Branca (well, the ones we’re allowed to know, anyways) lend themselves well to cold-weather cocktails: saffron, chamomile, rhubarb,” says Andrew Pope, beverage director at The Bar at Willett in Bardstown, Kentucky. “Personally, I enjoy stirring a Toronto when it’s cold out. It’s Willett rye, Fernet, sugar, and an orange twist.”
Vodka had been maligned by “serious” bartenders for years, but a wave of creative offerings with unique profiles is shedding some light on the category. One of the most exciting of the bunch is Suntory’s Haku Vodka, which is distilled from Japanese white rice with fragrant floral notes and a peppery finish. “I love receiving useful and thoughtful gifts during the holidays and Haku Vodka is exactly that,” says Cari Hah, bar manager at Los Angeles’ Big Bar. “It's a banger in terms of functionality, amazing to mix with in cocktails, and also enjoyable as a sipper on its own!”
Aberlour A’bunadh Alba Whisky
“I’m a fan of whisky neat and in cocktails,” says Gary Matthews, head bartender and beverage director of Drumbar in Chicago. “Aberlour has recently been on a roll introducing some great new bottles and one of my favorite innovations to-date that I’d love in my stocking is Aberlour A’bunadh Alba.” Straying from the typical sherry-cask maturation it’s become known for, Speyside’s Aberlour Distillery crafts A’bunadh Alba as a cask-strength bourbon-inspired expression. Sold for less than $100, it’s a bang-for-your-buck sipper that offers notes of baked apple and pepper along with citrus peel. The name comes from the Scotch Gaelic word for “the original.”
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye Whiskey
The latest from Wild Turkey’s annual limited-release Master’s Keep line is also its first rye. “Wild Turkey didn’t start distilling rye until the Russell family took over production in the '70s,” says Westin Galleymore, spirits director at Underbelly Hospitality in Houston, Texas. “It’s funny because [master distiller] Jimmy Russell is not a rye whiskey fan, although his son Eddie and grandson Bruce are. Eddie is definitely more conscious of his father’s palate, and I don’t think he would have put out a limited release rye whiskey without his son, Bruce’s, insistent love for rye. Needless to say, it’s delicious, and for a limited-release stunner, it hasn’t gotten the traction it deserves.”
J. Rieger Caffè Amaro
The joint effort of Kansas City distillery J. Rieger & Co. and coffee roaster Thou Mayest, this coffee liqueur fuses a single-origin coffee with seven botanicals and herbs, plus evaporated cane syrup. With flavors ranging from slightly sweet to bitter and herbal, it’s become a favorite of New York City bartender Sother Teague of Amor y Amargo. “Holiday shopping for the spirit lover in your life can be tough, but a unique bottle with a (mostly) universally enjoyed flavor is a sure way to warm the hearth,” Teague says. “Caffè Amaro from J. Rieger is a dry coffee liqueur that’s great to sip on and easily lends a warm holiday vibe to cocktails.”
Compass Box Affinity Scotch Calvados Blend
This rare release from Compass Box has been filled as the first-ever blend of Scotch and Calvados. “I’m a big fan of basically everything Compass Box does, but this latest release is pretty smart!” says Kelsey Ramage, co-founder of Trash Tiki and owner of Toronto’s anti-waste Supernova Ballroom. “Personally, I seem to be reaching for a lot of Calvados lately and I’ve seen it more and more at bars. The spirit is experiencing a bit of a resurgence. This release is ideal for the holiday season and I love that it’s finished in French oak and sherry casks. With only 6,000 bottles released globally, I do hope someone sends me a bottle as I may not get to see it otherwise.”
Upgrade your friends from Aperol to Ramazotti. Founded in Milan in 1815, the brand has maintained the base of its original amaro recipe. This new release, however, highlights notes of orange blossom and hibiscus—ideal for an elevated spritz. “When friends ask what to bring over for a holiday get-together, I usually say Ramazzotti Amaro,” says Charlie Reyes, bartender at Major Food Group’s The Grill and The Pool in New York City. “Not only for the spiced holiday vibes of cinnamon, orange and rhubarb, but also because my work experience has opened my eyes to great Italian heritage products. If someone found and surprise gifted me with a bottle of Ramazzotti Rosato, I’d be really impressed since it’s pretty new to market.”
Ichiko Saiten Shochu
Shochu, a clear liquor made from rice, buckwheat, or barley, is Japan’s national spirit. For something totally unexpected, try Iichiko Saiten, a first-of-its-kind high-proof shochu. “Iichiko Saiten is a game changing shochu,” explains Kenta Goto of New York City’s Japanese-inflected Bar Goto. “It's not only rich in flavor and umami character, but comes in at 43% ABV, unlike traditional shochu, which is about 25% ABV. This is your go-to shochu if you want to create Japanese-inspired cocktails.”
High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram Rye
Some of America’s finest brown spirits come from this beloved distillery in Park City, Utah. A perennial favorite each year, the limited-release Midwinter Night’s Dram finishes the house Rendezvous Rye in port and French oak barrels—perfect for a cold night by the fireplace. “Drinking good whiskey with friends is the highlight of the holidays,” says Brian Nixon, bar manager at Washington DC staples McClellan’s Retreat and Truxton Inn. “It takes little effort to procure, but I love the Midwinter Dram generally because of the sweetness from the port barrel finish.”
El Tesoro Extra Añejo Tequila
Released last month as a permanent addition to El Tesoro’s core range, this tequila aged in ex-bourbon barrels for four to five years draws on the brand’s long history: they technically put out an extra añejo way back in 1994, before the Consejo Regulador de Tequila had even established such a classification. “It’s the perfect gift for Christmas as its flavor profile is ideal for the after-dinner sit-down,” explains Darron Foy, head bartender at The Flatiron Room. “It delivers a light, creamy mouthfeel with notes of pepper and vanilla, while showcasing the versatility of the spirit. El Tesoro means ‘the treasure’ and it truly is a treasure for the Christmas stocking.”
The Glenrothes 40-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch
“Glenrothes 40 makes the perfect gift for any whisky drinker who enjoys layers of dark fruit and depth in texture,” explains Kevin Dierdrich, owner of Pacific Cocktail Haven, or PCH, in San Francisco. “It’s like nothing else I’ve had before.” This luxurious single malt from Speyside distiller Glenrothes is a splurge-worthy option for a very special scotch enthusiast in your life (it’ll set you back around $4000). Only 60 of the individually-numbered bottles are available in the United States. The whisky was crafted in the Glenrothes’ now-retired stillhouse in 1978, and will never be repeated.
Bonus: Proteau Ludlow Red
Well, this is very much not booze. But with the current craze surrounding quality non-alcoholic drinks, we’re not surprised to see an endorsement for Proteau—which, in terms of complexity, can hold its weight with any of the others on this list. The brainchild of ex-Momofuku bar manager John DeBary, Proteau is the booze-free answer for those who love aperitif-style drinks like vermouth, fortified wines, and Italian amari.
Its inaugural offering is the Ludlow Red, a non-alcoholic botanical aperitif fusing the flavors of blackberry, chrysanthemum, violet, black pepper, dandelion, and fig vinegar. “Proteau Ludlow Red is the subtle head-turner gift: ready-made and astoundingly non-alcoholic,” notes Karen Fu of Los Angeles’ Republique. “It's a delicious innovation in the aperitif world, and so inviting—I feel like a clever maverick drinking this lush bouquet.”