A Spirited Gift Guide: Bartenders' Ultimate Holiday Wish List Bottles
As unofficial booze ambassadors and educators to the drinking public, cocktail bartenders are privy to some of the best liquor on the market. Beyond pouring the stuff and making drinks with it, they’re often trying new releases before they hit liquor store shelves, and traveling to distilleries and tasting rooms to see how products are made.
It makes sense then that those who are surrounded by booze on a daily basis have a keen eye for the stuff that’s truly special. And with the holidays just around the corner, we’re tapping into that expertise for some spirited gifting inspiration. Our question was simple: What one bottle of booze would you ask Santa for this year?
With responses from some of our favorite star-tenders, we’ve generated a list of rare, odd, pie-in-the-sky items sure to surprise and delight any spirits nerd in your life. From special-cask Japanese whisky and extra-old Scotch to Thai gin and French honey wine, here are some excellent, gift-able bottles to seek out—that is, if you can.
Sofia Present, bartender, Bar Moga (New York)
“I love Don Q Oak Barrel Spiced Rum—it’s such a good sipping rum,” Present says. “It has all the exciting qualities of a spiced rum but with a nice drier finish, which I think would be so perfect for the holidays!” The Puerto Rican rum is aged three to six years, yielding pleasant notes of cinnamon and vanilla that open up to baking spices with sweet caramel from the oak.
Present adds, “I’m usually a cheap date, but of course I’d also like to try Yamazaki Mizunara Japanese Oak Cask 18 Year Old Single Malt. I just don’t know if I have been good enough this year!” With only 1,500 bottles released, this rare whisky showcases the power of Japan’s native mizunara oak when harnessed by Suntory blender Shinji Fukuyo.
Gustavo Martinez, bar manager, Alter (Miami)
In the whiskey world, masters’ collections allow distillers to flex their creativity and experiment with grain recipes, blending, and aging. Released just this year, Woodford Reserve’s Oat Grain Kentucky Bourbon, by master distiller Chris Morris, includes oat in the mix while minimizing the rye content—ideal for an after-dinner sip.
“I’ve had a dram of this spectacular whiskey once before—the second it touched my lips, it was whiskey heaven,” says Martinez. “The Oat Grain Kentucky Bourbon bridges the best of two worlds: Irish whiskey and bourbon.”
Elon Soddu, head bartender, Beaufort Bar at the Savoy Hotel (London)
“This year, my Christmas present to myself will be a bottle of Bowmore 25 Year Old Whisky,” Soddu says. “I recently tried this amazing spirit when the Beaufort Bar changed the menu and we added a bottle to our shelf. It is absolutely delicious, with the right amount of sweetness and lots of complexity.” This favorite among the small-batch releases from the Islay distillery employs American bourbon and Spanish sherry casks, offering the brand’s characteristic coastal peat smokiness layered with oaky nuttiness.
Davey Jones, bar manager, Millers All Day (Charleston)
Jones says he wishes every year for the acclaimed Midwinter Night’s Dram produced seasonally by Utah distillery High West using their flagship Rendezvous Rye finished in French oak port barrels. “It has such a unique flavor profile and they do a limited run every year,” says Jones. “It makes me think of drinking in front of a fire on a bearskin rug.”
Jamie Boudreau, proprietor, Canon (Seattle)
With some 4,000 labels lining the walls of Canon, we knew that owner and spirits guru Jamie Boudreau would have a well-curated selection. “Any of the new Old Fitzgerald releases,” he recommends. “I’m not sure about the availability, as everything is very allocated in Washington, but my understanding is that there will be at least two releases per year (including one right about now), and they will have alternating age statements.”
These new releases reinvigorate the until-recently defunct Old Fitzgerald brand—to the delight of whiskey drinkers across the country. “They've brought the brand back with a vengeance: absolutely gorgeous packaging and the liquid inside does great service to the Old Fitz legacy,” explains Boudreau.
Amanda Swanson, tequila-mezcal sommelier, Añejo Tribeca (New York)
A rising star in the industry, Amanda Swanson is Añejo Tribeca’s first sommelier of agave spirits. This holiday, she offers a blanco tequila recommendation—spotlighting the great range of the agave spirit. “The Fuenteseca Cosecha 2013 Blanco Tequila is a limited-edition exquisite blanco from NOM 1146 distiller Enrique Fonseca, mellowed for three years in stainless steel,” says Swanson. “It’s hands down the most beautiful blanco tequila I’ve ever tasted—and bottled at high proof no less!”
Giuseppe González, bartender, Cleaver (Las Vegas)
Sipping rums are a fantastic option for initiating newer drinkers, who might be unfamiliar with the premium side of sugarcane spirits. The age statements on these rums are often lower than those of whiskies, but that’s due to the fact that aging takes place much quicker in tropical climates than, say, Scotland or Japan.
A proud Puerto Rican, New York-to-Las Vegas barman Giuseppe González recommends rums produced on his native island. “I think they make the best rum in the Caribbean and for the best value,” he says. “I like to compare and contrast two bottles together: Don Q Gran Añejo and Bacardi Gran Reserva Diez. You won’t spend more than $100 and you got enough to make some bomb-ass coquito.”
Clément Emery, head barman, Le Bar Botaniste at the Shangri-La Hotel (Paris)
“The bottle I’d ask for from Santa would be the double-matured Lagavulin Distillers Edition whisky,” says Emery. “It’s more than a classic smoky whisky—it’s an affordable masterpiece from Islay that is rich and intense. The sherry cask magically highlights its personality, between ashy peat, orange marmalade and dark chocolate. A perfect Christmas nightcap!” For a more affordable option in high-end scotch, this full-bodied sipper offers the best of the classic Islay style.
Christy Pope, partner, Midnight Rambler (Dallas)
Applejack and apple brandy are America’s oldest native spirits, and Dallas bar maven Christy Pope is in love with Laird’s Bonded, a re-release of a bartender favorite. Bonded here refers to products that are: bottled at no less than 50% ABV, aged in wood for a minimum of four years, distilled in one season at one American distillery. On hiatus for four years, the product returned to markets this past summer.
"I am so excited to be able to gift bottles of Laird's Bonded Apple Brandy 100 Proof this year,” says Pope. “It is as excellent in cocktails as it is as a sipping spirit. Apple Brandy is such a wonderful holiday gift for all that apple goodness—with 17 pounds of apples in one bottle—that pairs so well with holiday spices.”
Kimberly Patton-Bragg, bartender, Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 (New Orleans)
“Hirsch 16 changed my life and my love of brown liquor,” says Patton-Bragg. “Skies opened, angels started singing, and Billie Holiday came back to life. I have two ounces given to me by a friend that is my deathbed whiskey.”
She’s not really exaggerating. The A.H. Hirsch Reserve 16 Year Old Straight Bourbon Whiskey is near-mythical among bourbon drinkers. First distilled in a 400-barrel batch in 1974, it earned cult status for the story behind it: ownership of the juice had changed hands several times, resulting in a serendipitously aged product.
Joseph Boroski, consulting beverage director, The 18th Room (New York)
“This Christmas I will be asking Santa for a bottle of Iron Balls Gin from Thailand,” says Boroski. Produced in a Bangkok micro-distillery, the gin is made by double-column-distilling a base of 13% pineapple-coconut wine rather than the ethanol typically sourced from bulk grain distilleries.
“It’s not yet imported to the States and the actor, Mario Cantone, drank the last bit of the bottle I carried over in my suitcase,” Boroski recalls. “The 18th Room is a highly sustainable venue focused on sourcing ingredients that are best for the environment and the community and Iron Balls would fit the bill when it becomes available to buy stateside. Until then, I might just have to ask Santa.”
JiaWei Bai, principal bartender, Employees Only Singapore (Singapore)
“I’m a big lover of absinthe, but I’ve yet to taste any absinthe that was produced before it was banned,” says Singaporean rising star JiaWei Bai. “So I would choose Pernod Fils Absinthe with the labels printed ‘fabriqué en 1913.’” In 1915, the sale and production of absinthe was famously banned in France for its alleged harmful effects. The bottles produced before the ban have become collector’s items for modern fans of the wormwood liqueur.
Caroline Woodruff, bartender, Proof (Charleston)
For Proof bartender Caroline Woodruff, a bottle smuggled from afar is as meaningful a gift as one paid for at a high price. “A gift with a feeling attached is always the way to go for me,” she says. “I'd love if someone came back with a honey rum, like Artemi Ron Miel from their trip to the Canary Islands. It’s traditional, affordable, and thoughtful. I’m building up my bar with treasures.”
Tommy Ho, general manager at Anvil Bar & Refuge (Houston)
“The magical bottle I’d want to find under the tree on a cold Christmas morning—after a food-coma-induced, lethargic, Christmas Eve hibernation, hopefully—is the Rochelt Wachau Apricot Eau de Vie,” says Ho. “It’s the purest, most unadulterated eau de vie or fruit brandy I’ve had.” Ho first tasted the storied apricot brandy, made with apricots grown near the Danube River, when rare spirits hunter Nicolas Palazzi brought some down for the Anvil crew to try. “They never sacrifice quality for any reason and will only put out what they feel is, for lack of words, perfection,” Ho says. For that perfection, you’ll pay upwards of $300 for a half-bottle.
Sother Teague, beverage director, Blue Quarter and Amor y Amargo (New York)
New York bartender Sother Teague offers one unobtainable wish, and one that’s a bit easier to find. “Old Overholt has long been my favorite rye expression. It’s the longest continually produced rye whiskey in the world—tastes of peanuts and flinty pencil shavings, and great in an old-fashioned,” says Teague. “Two years ago, I had the opportunity to purchase a case of Old Overholt produced in 1909. This was the best bottling of anything I’ve ever tasted in my life and I’m sure Santa would agree.”
Beyond that you-had-to-be-there whiskey, Teague recommends the Caffé Amaro Coffee Bitter Liqueur from Kansas City’s J. Rieger and Co. “It’s the best coffee liqueur in the market in my opinion,” he says. “It’s delightfully bitter and deliciously coffee-esque unlike many cloyingly sweet coffee liqueurs on the shelf today.”
Aris Makris, head bartender at Le Syndicat (Paris)
Nodding to his bar’s emphasis on spirits and liqueurs native to France, Makris says he loves cognac around the holidays. “The one I’m really interested in trying is D’usse XO or Louis XIII, to be a little fancier,” says Makris. “D’Usse is new and isn’t available in the European market yet, but I tried it in the the US and loved the flavor. As for Louis XIII, I believe it is the best cognac in the world.” And his preferred method of consuming cognac? “With a nice cigar next to a fireplace.”
Chris Mendenhall, lead mixologist, Quadrant Bar at The Ritz-Carlton (Washington, D.C.)
"This year, WhistlePig Rye's The Boss Hog V: The Spirit of Mauve is at the top of my wish list,” says Mendenhall. “It's something I look forward to every year, and we still have a little bit of the Version IV left in The Vault—which is what we call the fireproof safe in the bar that houses the bar's top-tier spirits.”
Now in its fifth annual release, the 13-Year Straight Rye Whiskey is finished in Calvados Casks, giving it whispers of apple and spice that make it excellent for the holidays. The name references the distillery’s pet pig, Mauve, and its “undying love of apples.”
Paul McGee, bartender-owner, Lost Lake (Chicago)
“My ultimate bottle of booze to have this holiday season is Neisson 15 Year Rhum Agricole,” says tiki legend Paul McGee. “This elegant rhum from Martinique is full of dark fruit and warm spices—perfect for this time of year!” Neisson is one of the world’s most acclaimed producers of rhum agricole, the rum distilled from fresh cane juice rather than molasses. Only 120 bottles of this release were brought into the United States, and it retails for around $400.
Aaron Polsky, bar manager, Harvard & Stone (Los Angeles)
“Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2018 release,” suggests Polsky. “When I started working at my first bar, Birthday Bourbon was one of the treasured bottles. I think in a world where some bourbons are becoming all but unattainable, Birthday Bourbon is a chance to have an extra-special bottle at a still reasonable price.”
Drawn from an array of the distillery’s 12-year-old barrels, this highly-awarded 101-proof whiskey has everything a bourbon should have: a dark mahogany color, notes of fruit that make way for caramel, and a long finish with hints of lemon.
Matthew Resler, bartender, Bar Goto (New York)
For Bar Goto drink-slinger Matthew Resler, a mezcal made with a rare, hard-to-grow agave tops his holiday gift wishlist.“I'd love to see a bottle of Siete Misterios Jabalí under my tree,” says Resler. “Jabalí is tough to harvest as it grows out of the side of rocky cliffs. It is a super aggressive plant—the name translates to ‘wild boar.’ It is also notoriously difficult to produce a mezcal with this wild agave, which is why a lot of producers refrain from cultivating it for mezcal production.” He adds, “I have only seen the Siete Misterios Jabalí via social media and would love to get my hands on a bottle!"