20 Excellent Bottles of Booze to Gift in 2020, According to Bartenders
Cuvée cask-aged single malts, Japanese plum whiskey, and a non-alcoholic botanical aperitif—bartenders reveal the bottles they hope to receive this year.
This holiday season, consider helping your family and friends restock their depleted home bars and bottle collections with new, intriguing, and sophisticated offerings from around the globe. To curate our list, we connected with some of the top bartenders in the country (and beyond) to find out which standout bottle they hope to find in their Christmas stocking this year—plus, how they would sip it or mix it.
Whether you’re shopping for a dedicated whiskey drinker, a liquor novice, or the mixologist in your family, we’ve got you covered with options of every persuasion and price range. From Fijian and Haitian rums to French malt whiskey and a bourbon that supports the hospitality industry, these are the 20 best best bottles of booze to gift in 2020, according to the people who know the stuff best.
St. George Bruto Americano
American amari have gained tons of traction in recent years. From the Alameda-based craft distillery St. George Spirits comes this citrusy standout inspired by distiller Lance Winters’ experience growing up in California in the 1970s—ingredients include local Seville orange, balsam fir, and the bark of the California buckthorn. “An easygoing amaro, it packs an amazing punch of baking spice and just the right amount of bitterness,” says Robin Wolf, bar director at Paso Robles, Californias’ The Hatch Rotisserie & Bar and owner of SLO Bitter Co. “I love it in everything from a black Manhattan to adventurous Tiki drinks, and it’s killer in your favorite eggnog recipe or to spice up a hot cider as the weather turns.”$33 at wine.com
Ferrand Selection des Anges
“One of my favorite bottles I’ve ever been given is Pierre Ferrand’s Selection des Anges,” says Andrew Volk, owner, operator, and bartender of Maine’s Scandinavian-accented Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. “The range of flavors that it carries is wild and it’s a beautiful gift for anyone who loves spirits and wants to be impressed, from the cognac connoisseur to someone who is just getting into spirits.” Ideal for sipping, this higher-end champagne cognac bottles liquid with an average age of 30 years, yielding a soft, complex palate of candied fruit and saffron that gives way to a long finish with notes of hazelnut and walnut. The name, translating to “the selection of the angels,” refers to the evaporation of liquid during the aging process. $200 at missionliquor.com
Ojo De Tigre Artesenal
With smoky, earthy flavors—not to mention its immense stateside popularity—mezcal has all the potential to become a mainstay for holiday drinking. The 100% sustainably-produced Ojo De Tigre incorporates two types of agave: the usual Espadín from Oaxaca and the less common, wild Tobalá from Puebla. “The holidays are all about traditions and rich flavors, and Ojo de Tigre is earthy and herbal which complements the warm and starchy savory dishes associated with the holidays,” says Ashly Levi (aka “Miss Agave”) of Miami’s La Santa Taqueria. She recommends shaking it up in a paloma or margarita, or drinking it straight with a large ice cube.
Alfred Giraud Heritage French Malt Whisky
Cognac may be the best known brown spirit out of France, but family-owned distiller Alfred Giraud is betting on whisky. After nearly hundred years of experience crafting cognac, they introduced a French malt whisky portfolio in 2019. Released just last year, Heritage is made, naturally, by blending three French malts, then aging the liquid in French and American new oak casks as well as erstwhile cognac casks. “Notes of honey, lemon zest, jasmine, and pears play very nicely with soda for an aperitif but it also works as a digestif at the end of a meal, perhaps with a cigar even if you're so inclined,” says Juan Carlos Santana, beverage director at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Le Jardinier in Miami. “For a holiday spin, we make a spiced syrup with cinnamon, clove, ginger, anise, and nutmeg that works with the whisky in everything from an old fashioned to a hot toddy.” $149.99 at wine.com
Fords Gin Officers’ Reserve
Created by and for bartenders, Fords Gin’s London Dry has become a staple in many back bars. The 86 Co. builds on that profile with the limited Officers’ Reserve bottling, which finishes the spirit in sherry barrels. “Fords Gin Officers’ Reserve is something I’ve been recommending to friends as a gift idea, especially for the holidays,” Jose Carrasco, bar director at BAWK! Chicken & Bar in Sacramento. “With its limited release, I’m excited that more will be on the market in 2021, but why wait? People love showing up to the party with a bartender approved bottle. The overproof nature of the gin—plus big, bold flavors of dry fruit and baking spice—makes it great for an extra hot toddy or even great for a mini martini to start off a festive evening.” $40 at wine.com
Uncle Nearest 1856 Whiskey
With the continuous growth of brown spirits consumption over the past few decades, it’s worth remembering the oft-erased contributions of Black Americans to the history of distilling in the country. In fact, it was a former enslaved man, Nathan "Nearest" Green, who taught Jack Daniel (yes, that Jack Daniel) how to distill spirits. Produced by his descendants, the Uncle Nearest 1856 blends premium whiskies aged between 8 and 14 years, yielding the requisite notes of caramel and ripe and dried fruit with a long finish of vanilla. “Though I’m faithful to mezcal the majority of the year, the holidays scream for brown spirits for me; Uncle Nearest has restored my love for bourbon,” says Alex Maynard of Oakland’s gastrobar Starline Social Club and Afro-Latino kitchen Sobre Mesa. “Made by the descendants of Nathan Green, the godfather of Tennessee whiskey, it’s ridiculously easy drinking. Please Santa—stuff one these bottles in my stocking and keep me warm for the holidays.” $58 at wine.com
It’s hard to compare the Copenhagen-based Empirical to any other brand currently on the market. Fittingly so: The company was founded in 2017 by alums of the similarly one-of-a-kind Scandinavian restaurant Noma, hence its culinary ethos. A star of the portfolio, Ayuuk prominently features a distinctively smoky pasilla Mixe chile—known as "the gem of Oaxaca"—native to the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca. The chilis are macerated and fused with a spirit made from Danish heritage purple wheat and Pilsner malt; all of this is then blended and rested in a Oloroso sherry casks. “I'm pouring 'Ayuuk' to pair with our Mole Negro on Cosme's tasting menu,” explains Yana Volfson, beverage director at New York City’s nouveau Mexican kitchen Cosme.” The juxtaposition of a distillate that captures the exact flavor of one chili with a dish that celebrates the layering of many chilis makes for an interesting composition. And if a box were to magically appear bearing a gift, Ayuuk would make a lovely splash in hot chocolate on a snowy day, afternoon, or evening this holiday season.” $85 at empirical.com
Barr Hill Gin
Founded by a local beekeeper, Vermont’s Caledonia Spirits distills products that showcase the natural bounty of the state; all of its spirits are made with raw northern honey. Its flagship offering, Barr Hill Gin, is a juxtaposition of honey and juniper—distilled in a custom-built botanical extraction still. For Paul Taylor, beverage director and partner at Washington D.C.’s lauded Columbia Room, the connection is personal. “This gin hits on a couple of different levels; first, I have family from Vermont, which connects with fond memories I have of the Green Mountain State,” Taylor says. “Second, this is a beautifully constructed gin; it is laser-focused; there are pine and subtle fruit notes from the juniper and high floral tones with just the right amount of buttery sweetness from the raw honey to balance it out. I could see this gin fitting wonderfully in a Christmas morning toddy, or a gin old fashioned enjoyed fireside at the evening's conclusion. Here's hoping a bottle makes its way into my stocking this year.” $40 at wine.com
Cyril Zangs 00 Cide Eau De Vie
Flex your knowledge of spirits by gifting this cult-beloved eau de vie, or unaged spirit, that showcases the terroir and quality of its raw materials. “I’d love to get a decent bottle of eau de vie this year,” says Orlando Franklin McCray, bar director at Nightmoves, the café-bar expansion Brooklyn’s natural wine pioneer Four Hoursmen. “My family in Luxembourg comes through every year with some pretty harsh, commercial stuff and I love them for trying, but if it were up to me, I’d get a bottle of Cyril Zang’s 00 unaged apple. You can taste intent in the product and so it makes for a great gift.” To produce this highly-coveted spirit, the Normandy producer uses thirty varieties of apples that are pressed, fermented, and left to age on the less for no less than 10 months before distillation, yielding a fresh bouquet of green apple, vanilla, and hops. $92 at flaviar.com
Milam & Greene Port Finished Straight Rye Whiskey
Texas whiskey is making a name for itself on the international stage these days, thanks largely to Milam & Greene—a new distillery set in the picturesque Hill Country. The brainchild of master distiller Marlene Holmes and CEO-master blender Heather Greene, Milam & Greene sources casks from Indiana, batches the spirit in a Blanco, Texas rickhouse, and then finishes it in erstwhile Port wine casks. “With its remarkable flavor and beautiful bottle, as well as the brand's origins, it is a luxurious holiday gift offered at a palatable price—one reason it’s found its way into our bar's speedwell and is there to stay,” says Tara Guthrie, owner-operator of Chase's Place Cocktails + Kitchen in the charming town of Fredericksburg, Texas. “It’s a gorgeous ruby-colored whiskey with luscious aromas of cinnamon, chocolate, and dark fruits such as black currants and blackberries. As a sommelier, I especially dig the unique finish this offers.” $55 at mashandgrape.com
Mr. Black Ethiopian Single Origin Coffee Liqueur
Ethiopia is believed to be the birthplace of coffee, and Mr. Black taps into that history and terroir with a new-school coffee liqueur produced at a single farm in the Yirgacheffe region. “Florals of bergamot and tasting notes of orange marmalade would be perfect for pairing it with some Christmas spices and dried citrus in a hot toddy style drinks or mulled wines with hint of caffeine,” suggests Martin Hudak, co-owner of the critically-acclaimed Maybe Sammy in Sydney, Australia. “It’s also one of the most beautiful gifts out there—I love the vibrantly colored Ethiopian blue-breasted bee-eater bird featured on the bottle label.” Hudak emphasizes the company’s commitment to sustainability: they partner with Project Origin, a foundation that sources quality beans from all over the world and supports small-scale farmers. $40 at whiskeyexchange.com
Imada Brewery, Fukucho 'Seaside' Sparkling Junmai
It’s been a tough year for Japan’s sake producers, who’ve seen declining sales especially among export markets battered by COVID-19. Julia Momose, the star-tender behind Chicago’s omakase-style bar Kumiko, calls out Hiroshima’s woman-owned Imada Brewery as one excellent producer to support. “I could write many pages about Miho Imada-san—what I love about her sparkling junmai is that year after year she is adapting and updating the brew, making slight modifications to improve the quality and enjoyability each time,” Momose says. “Miho san works with a secret blend of white and yellow koji for this sparkling junmai, harnessing the best parts of the kōji. She utilizes secondary fermentation in the bottle for a soft, yet peppy champagne-like effervescence.” Momose recommends enjoying the Fukucho Seaside with oysters, cheese and charcuterie, or even fried chicken. $33 at tippsysake.com
There’s always room for this brazen smoke bomb on a holiday gift list—after all, for diehard fans of peat, you can’t do much better than the Octomore series first launched in 2002 by Islay mainstay Bruichladdich. “I’m a Scotch girl at heart, and I would love to have a bottle of Bruichladdich Octomore in my Christmas stocking,” says Crystal Chasse, food and beverage director for the newly-opened Talk Story Rooftop at Brooklyn’s McCarren Hotel. “Bottled a touch younger, peated heavily, and then kept at cask strength—this isn’t for the faint of heart. But the peat is balanced with floral honey notes and citrus. It’s a work of art in a glass.” To appease Octomore’s cult-like fanbase, Bruichladdich releases new expressions regularly. Chasse adds: “It’s a great scotch to try in different expressions, so maybe two can fit in my stocking ...”
El Tesoro Paradiso Tequila
Extra añejo tequilas may be trending nowadays, but Mexican distillery El Tesoro offered many drinkers a first taste of super premium agave when it launched Paradiso way back in 1994. To create this distinctive bottling, master distiller Carlos Camarena ages the stuff for up to five years in former cognac barrels, yielding a silky smooth spirit rich with notes of chocolate and butterscotch and whispers of oak and minerality. “This is simply one of the greatest sipping tequilas ever produced, made by arguably the greatest distiller in Mexico in the highlands of Jalisco,” says Naren Young, creative beverage director at Miami’s beloved Sweet Liberty Drinks & Supply Co. “This is a real unicorn—it’s not exactly the easiest bottle to find, but every city has that amazing liquor store that should have this. Serve it neat or maybe over a large ice cube if you must, grab your favorite blanket, sit by the fire if you boast one of those and sip away. Would be perfect with some pumpkin pie, too!” $130 at winechateau.com
Pomp & Whimsy Gin
A self-proclaimed “reimagined gin,” Pomp & Whimsy double-infuses and re-distills the juniper spirit with a blend of 16 botanicals including grapefruit, lychee, cucumber, and jasmine pearls to create something bold and citrusy yet familiar. “While many people are steering towards spirit forward options to close out 2020, I think the light and floral flavor profile of Pomp and Whimsy make the perfect choice for the holidays,” says Paige Walwyn, bartender at Brooklyn cocktail institution Clover Club. “It’s a solid option to keep on the home back bar because you can use it in a series of different ways—I love using it in a spritz or a punch, or maybe pouring it over ice with a splash of tonic and a lime. And for the holidays I love having the option to drink all night without regretting it the next day.” $34 at wine.com
Gran Duque d'Alba Oro
Coming from the sherry-producing region of Jerez in Spain, this Solera-style brandy was first produced by Williams & Humbert in 1945 and named after the Grand Duke of Alba. “As a Solera it has an elegant, comforting warmth that is perfect to end intimate dinners that we will be having all winter this year,” explains Barbara Sibley, creative director at New York City’s perpetually festive Holiday Cocktail Lounge. Aged in oak barrels, the spirit offers an arresting palate of red fruit and sweet raisin complemented by hints of cedarwood. $155 at wine.com
A collaboration between Maker’s Mark and Louisville-based nonprofit The LEE Initiative, this limited release whiskey was produced with a noble cause in mind: 100% of proceeds going towards supporting diversity and equity in the industry. The bottle is a combination of profiles from the Maker’s Mark Private Selection Barrels of more than 30 bars restaurants and liquor stores across the country. Bartender Bri Hlava, who was laid off from Louisville’s The Pearl of Germantown due to COVID-19, says: “It's no secret that this year has been a tough one, but the CommUNITY Batch reminds us of some of the good that we still have—each other! With notes of baked apples, puff pastry, and dried stone fruit, this is going to pair perfectly with all of your holiday treats. Personally, I'll be enjoying it neat with some of my mom's peanut butter cookies.”
Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin
Also produced in the “spirit of giving,” Saint Benevolence is a rum produced at the family-owned, third-generation Dorcinvil Distillery in the style of Haiti’s ancestral spirit—rife with fresh, crystalline notes of green banana and wasabi. Proceeds from the spirit go towards the company’s various Haitian-based nonprofit partners as well as its farmers, who receive free healthcare and subsidized education for their families. “One of the products I recommend to gift this Christmas is Saint Benevolence Rum Clarin—we feature this rum on our cocktail menu in one of our signature drinks because of its rich texture and underlying sweetness,” says Alexa Delgado, bartender at Knife & Spoon at the Ritz-Carton Orlando in Grande Lakes. “It can hold its own in a cocktail without getting muddied up by other flavors or mixers.” $33 at bittersandbottles.com
Plantation Isle of Fiji Rum
Plantation Rum continues to lead in cane spirits innovation, recently introducing this highly-anticipated rum made from local Fijian molasses and sourced from the only distillery operating on the island. "Good things do come in pretty packages," says Jackson Cannon, owner and bartender of The Hawthorne in Boston. “Rum lovers will enjoy this spicy sip with just a piece of ice while budding home bartenders will thrill to the tropical spice notes that burst through a hand shaken daiquiri.” Indeed, this rum intrigues with notes of cinnamon and tropical fruit, a result of aging up to two years in bourbon casks in Fiji and another year in ex-cognac casks in France. $44 at whiskeyexchange.com
Mancino Chinato Vermouth
“Chinato Vermouth is a newer category for most in the United States and one that I really would love to receive as a gift this year,” says Valentin Longo, head bartender at Four Seasons Surfside and founder of Shoshin Art Club, a new online home for cocktail classes. “This is a perfect gift for someone who loves vermouth and vermouth-based cocktails, where it gives an extra-bitter body note to drinks. Personally, this reminds me of Italy, where I’m from, and who doesn’t want to be reminded of home right now?” Longo suggests trying the vermouth in a variety of ways: neat, on the rocks, warmed up, or straight from the fridge. Serve it a mulled wine, and swap it in for any recipe that calls for an amaro.