The Spirit(s) Of Christmas: Great Distilled Gifts To Give

The holidays are stressful for many reasons, one of which is gift pressure. Host(ess), Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, gifts for neighbors, obligatory “thank you for the great mail delivery/haircuts/massages gifts.”

You know what makes for a thoughtful gift that reduces stress? A bottle of something delicious. Unless, of course, your intended recipients don’t/aren’t old enough to drink. I can’t help you with that. But I can provide you with a list of great, small-batch spirits to give to those who’ve been appropriately naughty or nice this year:

Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon
This stuff sells out quick, so when you see it at your local liquor store, snatch it up right quick. The bourbon lover in your life (I would gift this to myself, hint, hint) will savor the vanilla, clove, licorice, black cherry and petrol notes. Made from sour mash, and aged for eight years in white oak, this heavenly elixir is made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd., which specializes in producing small-batch bourbons for brands that include Noah’s Mill and Willett.

Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur
One of Colorado’s top distilleries is this family-owned Denver company. They make a mean gin and whiskey, as well as other spirits, but Three Pins is a ski-town favorite. Made from a proprietary blend of over a dozen herbs and regional alpine flowers blended with spices and other botanicals, it’s slightly sweet and syrupy, with refreshing citrus and herbal notes. Use as you would Benedictine – as a digestif, to add depth to a cocktail, or as a surprisingly compatible pairing with a mellow blue or goat cheese.

Ron Zacapa
If someone on your list has the hots for rum, this is the gift that will keep on giving far longer than its under-$40 price tag would suggest. A premium Guatemalan sipping rum made with high-elevation-grown estate sugar cane, Zacapa is made according to the same Sistema Solera process used in sherry production. The rum is blended and aged in American whiskey, sherry and Pedro Jimenez wine casks of varying ages. The result is a rum with deep, complex aromas and flavors reminiscent of raisin, honey, spice and oak. If your recipient is extra special, get them the Ron Zacapa 23 (as in years). Simply luscious.

Crop Vodka
I’m not a huge fan of vodka, but was pleasantly surprised by the cucumber and tomato flavors from this certified organic brand from Minnesota. Lovely on the rocks, in a gimlet or Bloody Mary, or with a splash of tonic, these refreshing garden varieties are like summer, er, distilled in a bottle.

Sombra Mezcal
Mezcal is the new tequila (technically, tequila is mezcal; both are made from blue agave, but tequila is produced in designated regions within Jalisco state). Or, look at it this way: it’s the Scotch-drinker’s white spirit. Smoky, peaty, and world apart from the firewater swill with the worm in the bottle, today’s premium mezcal’s are often sourced from single villages located near the small distilleries. Sombra, produced in Oaxaca with high-elevation, estate-grown agave, is oaky and smoky, with notes of spice and pineapple. Masculine and sophisticated; serve with a smoking jacket or … velvet slippers?

[Photo credit: Flickr user fd]

Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail: A Pilgrimage To The Maker’s Mark Distillery

I’m not much of a bourbon connoisseur. In fact, before a recent road trip to Kentucky where 95% of the world’s bourbon is made, I had no idea what distinguished bourbon from regular old whiskey. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so I decided to visit the Maker’s Mark Distillery, reputedly one of the best stops on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.

The distillery is a 25-minute drive, along a windy country road that dips and turns along a pastoral landscape from Bardstown, a distinctive small town named the “most beautiful small town in America” by USA Today this year. Along the way we passed some pitch-black Maker’s Mark warehouses that resembled a disused prison complex and one of them reassured us that we were just three miles away from some sweet Kentucky bourbon.

The distillery is set across a large complex that makes for a nice walk on a sunny day. There are a host of buildings, each painted dark brown and adorned with shutters the same shade of red as Maker’s Marks distinctive red wax bottle seals, which are hand dipped on the premises. (You can buy and dip your own bottle in the gift shop.)

The tour used to be free, but it now costs $7, which is still a bargain considering the fact they offer guests a chance to sample three bourbons and learn about a product that’s a deeply entrenched part of Kentucky’s culture.

The Samuels family, which founded Maker’s Mark, and scores of other Scotch-Irish distillers, fled to Kentucky from Pennsylvania after George Washington imposed a whiskey tax in 1791, sparking the Whiskey Rebellion. The whiskey tax went uncollected in Kentucky, then a frontier state, as no one had the will to enforce the law or prosecute those who ignored it.

Our tour guide, Jacqueline, told us that a nearby lake served as the base for the product.

“Why are there so many successful bourbon distilleries in the state of Kentucky?” she asked. “Here in a six county radius, we happen to sit on top of a very rich limestone shelf, that limestone filters our water making it iron free and calcium rich. Perfect for distilling whiskey with.”

And what makes bourbon different from regular whiskey?
To call it a bourbon whiskey it must have at least 51% corn, in the recipe – Maker’s Mark uses 70%. It must also consist of only grain, yeast and water, with no artificial flavors or colors; it has to be aged for at least two years in new, charred, oak barrels; and it has to be distilled at no more than 160 proof, barreled at no more than 125 proof and bottled at at least 80 proof.

Many of the technical details went over our heads, but we enjoyed having the opportunity to dip our hands in the vats in the fermentation room and were stoked to have a chance to sample three of their products: the 90 proof Maker’s White, which is only available at the distillery (thank God), regular Marker’s Mark and Maker’s 46, which Jacqueline described as “bourbon on steroids.”

We were instructed to taste the Maker’s White first and for good reason – the stuff is nasty.

“I like to look at all your faces as you’re tasting the Maker’s White,” Jacqueline said. “I can tell if you’ve had moonshine before, you know the Maker’s White isn’t that bad.”

But the Maker’s Mark and the Maker’s 46 were complex, with long, sweet, smooth finishes that lingered on the front of the tongue for a long time. I felt like I was still tasting them well after my insides were already warmed and my mouth felt a little numb, as though I’d just gotten some Novocain at the dentist. But on the way out, rather than getting a toothbrush and some floss, we were given a nice piece of chocolate – a sweet ending to our introduction to the world of Kentucky bourbon.

[Photos by Dave Seminara]

Where To Get The United States’ Best Whiskey

For those who love whiskey and live in the United States or are planning to visit, you’ll love this new infographic. The good people over at Sloshspot have kindly and ingeniously created a map detailing some of the best whiskey distilleries around the country.

If you’ve ever needed some inspiration to plan a U.S. road trip, or just can’t decide which route to take, let this map be your guide. The infographic not only tells you where to go to sample great whiskey, but also what to expect at each distillery in terms of fermentation and style. For example, you can see that in San Francisco, California, there is Anchor Brewing Company, which makes non-Kentucky bourbon, and that in Chicago, Illinois, there is Koval Distillery, where you can try American rye whiskey. A very large chunk of the graphic is dedicated to Kentucky and Tennessee, where you’ll find majority of the country’s whiskey distilleries.

If you’re having trouble viewing the infographic, click here.

[Infographic via Bourbon & Banter; top image via libraryrachel]

Doing Shots At The World’s Highest Distillery

While trying local spirits is always a fun way to get to know a city’s flavor, the Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado has something special to offer. Not only do they make small batch bourbon, vodka, whiskey, liqueurs and infusions, they’re also the highest distillery in the world.

Their hooch is made at 9,600 feet, using snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains. If you visit their distillery, which is located at 1925 Airport Road, you’ll be able to take a complimentary tour, and watch as the spirits are mashed, fermented and distilled. Additionally, a trip to their downtown tasting room, located at 137 S. Main Street, will allow you to browse their gift shop of mugs, shirts, glasses and flasks, as well as taste their products.

There are three options for the free tasting: Breckenridge Vodka, Breckenridge Bourbon and Breckenridge Bitters. The vodka is very flavorful, mashed with 100% Midwest sweet corn and filtrated with coconut shell charcoal. Moreover, the bourbon has a long finish, and is mashed with yellow corn, green rye and unmalted barley, and is fermented in 100% new American White Oak barrels. The tasty concoction you’ll sample will be at least 2-3 years old. Lastly, you can try the bitters, my personal favorite. Unlike most dash bitters, this version is meant to be sipped. Likewise, it has a neutral grain base featuring 13 herbs, spices and fruits, giving it a delicious tea flavor.

For more information, visit their website by clicking here.

Exploring Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail

When the world descends on Louisville for the Kentucky Derby the first weekend in May, those breathtaking thoroughbreds may be first on visitors’ minds, but you can bet bourbon is a close second. Bourbon’s legacy is intertwined with Louisville’s history going back even further than the Derby.

Pioneers in 18th-century Virginia’s Kentucky County found a source of liquid income farming on the 60 acres Thomas Jefferson granted them for raising native corn – they distilled their surplus corn into whiskey. With the local limestone-filtered water and the hardwood trees for barrels, the settlers put their whiskey-making knowledge to work. No matter that the land didn’t suit plowing or traditional rye – they hand-planted and raised indigenous corn. By the late 1700s this area had become part of Kentucky, and thanks to help from the French during the Revolution, one of the counties – one with a great number of the corn whiskey distilleries – was named Bourbon county (today it’s a dry county – go figure).

After the steamboat’s arrival in the Ohio River port town of Louisville in 1811, bourbon found new markets, particularly downriver in New Orleans. Much of the bourbon was shipped out of the original Bourbon county, and some say the Frenchmen reloading the barrels at the Falls of the Ohio (everything had to be unloaded and carried back to the ship on the other side) naturally preferred the name Bourbon.

So what exactly is bourbon, anyway? You may have heard this but it bears repeating. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. There are some specific requirements about proof, but the gist of it is this: Bourbon is made of more than half corn (at least 51%, though usually much more, among the rye, wheat and barley also used) and it must be aged in new charred-oak barrels. The best way to learn about bourbon, of course is to taste it, and the more open you are to learning from the local bartenders, the more they’ll be happy to impart. Just don’t confuse Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey with bourbon and you’ll get along fine.Louisville owes its bourbon dominance to Prohibition: Out of the six permits issued in the country during Prohibition to sell whiskey for “medicinal purposes,” four were in Louisville. Still today a third of Kentucky bourbon is distilled in city limits. And a new education and training center andartisan distillery opening this month downtown, the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, will offer hands-on distilling instruction, classes and bottling servicesto small bottlers and those who want to be. Moonshine University, in particular, promises to be fun for enthusiasts.

More importantly to most visitors, though, Louisville is the center of the universe fortastingbourbon. Whether you’re still recovering from college shots or are a whiskey connoisseur, Louisville’s bourbon scene is as multi-faceted as the spirit itself. A day on the Urban Bourbon Trailcan introduce you to the Louisville beyond the cloying mint juleps and floppy hats of Derby.

First, be smart. Especially if you’re not used to it, bourbon sneaks up on you if you imbibe too fast, don’t drink enough water, or consume on an empty stomach. Stay hydrated, eat at every stop, and seriously, take taxis!

Your day starts at Dish on Market, housed in Louisville’s first color motion picture theater. Marshall, one of the two brothers who own the place, loves to talk history. Ask him to tell you about the building and talk bourbon. Meanwhile, order the Presidential breakfast, inspired by Harry Truman’s purported daily meal of toast, eggs, bacon, fruit, milk, and a shot of whiskey, in this case a generous pour of Old Grandad. “This is not your grandma’s bourbon,” laughs Marshall. You may feel like people are staring as your whiskey fumes waft about. That’s OK. They’re just too chicken to go hardcore this early. But like Marshall’s family motto says, you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning. The key is to eat your breakfast first so you have a cushion for your bourbon.

Consider exploring the shops of NuLu (go east on Market) before lunch at Avalonon Bardstown Road, where you’ll want to wander later to check out the fun and funky shops. Like every stop on the trail, folks here know their stuff. If you like drama you might opt for the Flaming Pyroses, a Four Roses Manhattan set on fire (with Grand Marnier – “no bourbon was harmed in the making of this drink,” says Ryan, the bartender). For a less potent option, go for the Kentucky Mule, a twist on the classic bourbon and ginger, and familiar to fans of the vodka-based Moscow Mule. A range of lunch options well below $10 leaves you plenty to spend on drinks if you want to spring for the George T. Stagg, a $30 pour of liquid fire that will singe your lashes as you inhale, but burns oh so smoothly.

If it’s not madness at the track (that is, if you’re visiting outside of Derby week), hit the Derby Cafe in the afternoon to study up on your bourbon, and if you must have a mint julep, kick back at the bar.

After a rest, head for the old-fashioned opulence of The Brown Hotel. Piano music in the lobby bar will set the tone for your genteel sipping. Since this is your first evening stop, ease your way in with a Kentucky Cider – the light Basil Hayden joins sparkling apple cider and lemon for a lovely aperitif. Order a small plate or two – a recent option showcased country ham on brioche with a crayfish salsa, the perfect bite to whet your appetite.

A few blocks, and light years away, next up is the bar at Proof on Main. The restaurant for 21C Museum Hotel, repeatedly ranked among the top 10 hotels in the world, this is your “see and be seen” hotspot stop. Craft cocktails are offered with a selection of heartbreakingly delectable snacks. Don’t miss the cured meats plate, lonzino, lardo, and smoked grapes. The bar menu changes seasonally, but you could ask nicely for a Gold Rush for an all-too-easy-to-down honey, lemon and bourbon drink. Sip among the well-heeled crowd, then take a spin around the confrontingly contemporary art collection.

If you’ve paced yourself, you’re ready for dinner. You’re off to Baxter Station, where you’re unlikely to bump into tourists. Instead, this joint serves comfort fare to a regular crowd of its Irish Hill neighbors, families, white-haired long-timers and a sprinkling of hipsters. Traces of its past remain – once a saloon popular with nearby train station employees (no women allowed in those days), then a grocery during Prohibition, and back to a tavern until a rave restaurant review of the food turned it into a restaurant. Leftover door signage to the twinkly-lit back room remains because they don’t see any need to scratch away the past. This is pretense-free food and drink, no craft cocktails or fusion fuss here. The bourbon fried chicken, hot and crispy as nature intended, will fill you up nicely. Try Old Fashioned with Woodford (invented in Louisville) or choose your bourbon neat from the bar-tab friendly list.

Wrap up your night with dessert at Bourbons Bistro, a mecca for bourbon-lovers with more than 130 selections. Grab a chair at the bar for serious discussion. Tell the bartender what you like – caramel and vanilla, for instance – and he’ll give you a knowledgeable recommendation, like Vintage 17 Year. If you’re not up to straight bourbon, order the Bourbon Cobbler. Dessert in a glass, this sweet cocktail will go down so easily you might find yourself at the bottom tempted to order the 1969 Old Crow, a rare bourbon in a ceramic chess piece – you’ll see the face scowling as he keeps watch over the bar – that costs a cool $125. You might actually see someone order it, and watching a patron sip a drink that spendy is entertainment in and of itself. To finish the night, have the bread pudding. The towering carb-fest not only tastes amazing, but soaks up all that bourbon. You’ll need it – tomorrow is another day in Louisville.

Dana McMahanis a Louisville-based travel, food and fitness writer. Her articles have appeared in Delta Sky magazine,,, the Huffington Post, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among other outlets. She blogs here.