When you raise a glass this holiday season, make sure it's with a drink worth toasting.
Distillers often debut limited-edition bottling and other special releases in the fall, angling for a spot on your gift list for family, friends or colleagues. (Or, OK, just your shopping list. About 60 percent of shoppers take advantage of holiday offers to self-gift, buying $126.68 worth of presents for themselves, reports the National Retail Federation.)
These gift-worthy bottles won't disappoint, whether your budget is under $30 or as much as $133.
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant
Posted 20 Dec. 2014
£85 (about $133) at CompassBoxWhisky.com
Rather than compromise standards, Compass Box founder John Glaser discontinued his popular Eleuthera, a blended whisky, after the company's source of quality Clynelish casks dried up in 2004. Only recently did he discover a broker with a limited supply of that missing ingredient.
The resulting Lost Blend (named for an O. Henry tale) hearkens back to Eleuthera with a mix of Clynelish and Caol Ila, plus a bit of Allt-A-Bhainne, for a whisky that's an elegant but delicate mix of fruit and smoke.
The supply was only enough for 12,018 bottles. U.S. brand ambassador Robin Robinson said there's unlikely to be a future bottling, given that it took Glaser 12 years to find even this small cache of Clynelish. "It was lost, and it will be lost again," he said.
$62.99 (Silver), $72.99 (Reposado), or $82.99 (Añejo) at Ace Spirits
What does a two-ton volcanic rock have to do with tequila? More than you'd think. Patrón's new tequila line, introduced this summer, is made from agave crushed with a volcanic stone wheel called a tahona. (The brand's core line is a blend of tequila produced in this way, and using the more modern roller mill.) The Roca line is more complex than the core Patrón tequilas, with more agave notes and less citrus.
If you opt to use these tequilas in cocktails, there's plenty of versatility. One to try: The A List, which uses 1.5 ounces Roca Patrón reposado, 0.5 ounces apricot brandy, four ounces fresh orange juice, and a dash of bitters. Shake all ingredients with ice, and strain into a highball glass. Garnish with an orange peel.
$43 at Mouth.com
Labeled with the tagline "Made by nerds," it's clear this isn't your typical vodka. Brooklyn-based Industry City Distillery makes its beet-sugar vodka using energy-efficient methods and advanced technology, all in a space smaller than many one-bedroom New York City apartments.
The result is smooth vodka with a hint of sweetness, great for sipping straight or mixing into cocktails.
$67.99 at Astor Wines & Spirits
"Japanese whiskies are very popular right now," said Nima Ansari, spirit buyer for New York City's Astor Wines and Spirits. (Case in point: Yamakazi Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was awarded the title of "best in the world" last month.) Nikka's Coffey Grain is a good introduction.
The corn-based grain whisky, which has notes of vanilla and tropical fruit, is made on vintage stills brought over from Scotland in the 1960s. "It's got so much that can appeal to the American whisky drinker," Ansari said.
$27.99 at 67 Wine
A pre-Prohibition staple, rock and rye—rye whiskey infused with rock candy sugar, fruits and spices—is coming back into style. This take from Brooklyn's New York Distilling Company uses sour cherries, orange peel and cinnamon.
Yes, there's rock candy sugar, but only just enough to meet category regulations, said Tom Potter, co-founder and president of the distillery. "It's on the lowest end of the sweetness scale," he said. "We didn't want the rock and rye to get away from the rye."
Try this spirit straight, with a dash of bitters. (Think of it, in a sense, as a bottled Old Fashioned.) It also makes for some great cocktails, such as the Martini Robbins developed at the distillery's in-house bar, The Shanty: 1.25 ounces rock and rye, one ounce of New York Distilling Company's Dorothy Parker gin and one ounce Martini Rossi sweet vermouth. Stir the ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled glass; garnish with an orange twist.
$60 at 67 Wine
St. George Spirits started making apple brandy as an exclusive for New York City restaurant Eleven Madison Park. Their first commercial release, a barrel-aged version made from more than a dozen varieties of apple, hit shelves this fall. It's a smooth, balanced sip rich in (what else?) baked apples and spice, worthy of after-dinner sipping.
$36.99 (half bottle) at Wally's
Gin has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, with craft distillers broadening the category to incorporate new styles and innovative flavors. A "farm-to-bottle" distillery, Caledonia Hills uses its own honey and juniper for gin and vodka. Their Tom Cat is aged up to six months, for a result that offers some whisky spice notes, and a hint of honey.
It's excellent on its own but also works well in cocktails, like the Negroni (pictured) concocted by Brad Nugent, wine and beverage director at Center Bar in New York City. To make it, you'll need 1.5 ounces Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat, 1.5 ounces sweet vermouth and 1.5 ounces Campari. Pour all ingredients into a large mixing glass, add ice and stir well. Strain out into a martini glass and garnish with a large orange twist.
Read More Bartender, make me something with gin
2014 is a good year to drink Wild Turkey. Earlier this fall, the company released a 36,000-bottle offering of Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary ($125), in honor of master distiller Jimmy Russell's 60th anniversary. (The blend of 13-and 16-year-old bourbons was crafted from barrels selected by the other master distiller—Jimmy's son Eddie.) It's a complex sip with aged wood and hints of caramel and cigars.
Another unique bottling: This single-cask offering from Astor Wines & Spirits. Wild turkey releases its own small-batch and single-cask Russell's Reserve bourbons, made from barrels that Jimmy and Eddie hand pick.
"We were able to pick a few single barrels of our own" from those reserves, said Ansari. "This is the first one to come in." It's "decadent," he said, with notes of chocolate, cherry, pipe tobacco and Christmas spice.