Single Malt Scotch
Balvenie 15 Single Barrel $64.99 - This single barrel, single malt Scotch is the best bang for the buck player in the market today. With a caramel color and a smooth finish, consider this a poor mans Macallan 25 for one fifth the price. Hints of cherry and chocolate are only the start with this very tasty single malt. Look to their 21-year port wood offering if you are looking to go to that next level of excellence.
Springbank 15 - $119 - A little harder to find than the Balvenie, Springbank 15 is truly something unique. More peaty with more of a bite than, say, a Macallan 18, this single malt is the boozy equivalent of drinking a one-putt from 25 feet that goes right into the hole. A tiny splash of pure water helps to open the nose, but no ice of any kind is needed here. Your friends will truly love you for sharing Springbank 15 with them, if you are ever feeling that generous.
Macallan 30 - $799 - I know. I know. I skipped Macallan 25, and for a reason, not that it isnt stunning in its own right. Macallan 30 is a very limited edition bottle of single malt Scotch that you buy to celebrate the special times in life. At $799, expect to taste a far more refined, deep caramel flavor than described with the Balvenie above. There is absolutely no burn whatsoever, other than the desperate feeling when you get to the bottom of the bottle. Fine lounges (see resources below) like the Swann Lounge at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia will sell Macallan 30 for about $90 a glass, which is a good way to test drive this spirit before making the full investment. If you ever are really feeling chipper, ask to see the list of vintage and aged Macallan single malts at the 21 Club in New York, or try the $1,400 a shot (yes, I said a shot) Macallan 1939 at Club XIX at the Lodge at Pebble Beach. You might just reserve that investment for the day you make a hole in one on 17.
Effen - $37.99 - When all of your friends serve Grey Goose or Belvedere, with a bottle of Effen in the freezer, be prepared to step up a step. Made from wheat from northern Holland, the taste has a hint of vanilla, but not much more. The goal with Effen is that old less is more thing. Serve ice cold and feel free to mix into your most adventurous cocktails.
Modern Spirits (Pear/Lavender) $44.99 - This new California-based product is all about high-end flavored vodkas. With flavors more adventurous than, say, Absolut, expect to win friends and influence people with this pear-and-lavender-flavored vodka. It is light and floral. Recently, I had a chance to do a six-course meal paired with Modern Spirits, which was over-the-top good. It takes a ballsy chef to find the matches with these flavors (including a black truffle vodka), but when they did, it was very delicious.
Stolichnaya Stoli Elite - $61.99 - This Russian vodka is enough to drive vodka-philes into a frenzy. With a hint of wheat and an ever-so-slightly stronger hint of pepper, this premium vodka sets itself apart from other vodkas that have less character. What makes Stoli Elite special is its silky-smooth texture on the tongue. Its just plain luxurious.
Kauffman - $249 - Yes, it comes in stunningly beautiful packaging and an even more gorgeous bottle, but this pricey vodka has the chops to be worth its big-time price tag. No one flavor prevails as much as the amazingly smooth lack of flavor and silky texture. Think of what you like about Grey Goose and multiply it times five and you get an idea of what to expect from Kauffman. When in Beverly Hills, visit the Vod Box at Nics Martini Lounge for a tasting of all of these vodkas and dozens more while either shivering in a freezer at 34 degrees or wearing one of their faux-fur coats.
Casa Noble Crystal - $49.99 - For people who think tequila is only for college kids looking to get rowdy on Spring Break, I suggest you try Casa Nobles entry-level silver. This triple filtered agave nectar might shock you with just how smooth it is. More like what you might stereotypically expect from a fine vodka than an expensive tequila, Casa Noble Crystal begs to be enjoyed on its own, but will make a stunning margarita with the addition of a bit of simple syrup, some fresh lime juice and just a little orange liqueur.
Don Julio 1942 - $129.99 - You might not think of pineapples, vanilla or apples when you think of tequila, but that is just what you get with this pricey offering from respected producer Don Julio. This rich tequila is for sipping only. Its complex characteristics must be appreciated on their own. Guests not familiar with fine tequilas might not believe 1942 is actually in that beverage family.
Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia - $129 - Dont hold any preconceived notions you might have about the yellowish basic Cuervo tequila against the Reserva de la Familia, as the Reserva is a completely different beast. It is even more dark, rich and complex than Don Julio 1942, with characteristics that normally might be reserved to describe a single malt scotch. The color is warm and deep. The flavor, derived from only the inner portion (pina or heart) of the agave plant, is so rich that, at a recent tasting I attended in Cabo San Lucas, someone suggested that Reserva was more reminiscent of French cognac that typical tequila. Not that you can drink them, but the painted boxes are very nicely done and would make this a memorable gift. Visit the Tequila/Ceviche bar at Las Ventanas in San Jose del Cabo (reservations needed) to do their tequila tasting. They have hundreds of the most high-end tequilas in the world and will spend hours with you tasting. A taxi back to your hotel would likely be a good idea after that experience.
No. 10 by Tanqueray - $39.95 - Tanqueray is likely the best-known name in gin, but their No. 10 product kicks up the complexity and subtlety to another level even over the competition. Forget the hard-to-associate-with television ads and prepare for a dry martini with the smoothness you expect from a Brioni Super 200 suit poured into a glass. Unlike other, less expensive gins, No. 10 has a freshness and an openness you might not expect from gin.
Cadenhead Old Raj - $64.99 - Looking for something a little more exotic in Gin to add to your liqueur cabinet? Then look to something like William Cadenheads Old Raj. Complete with a hint of saffron, this gin comes from the epicenter of single malt Scotches in Campbelltown and offers a truly unique gin experience. The color is more yellow than clear and the taste is far more pronounced and three-dimensional than you might expect from more traditional gin.
Remy Martin Louis XIII - $1,899 - And no, we didnt get the price wrong. This cognac of the kings is $1,900 a bottle and true connoisseurs agree that it is worth its steep price. Expect scents of everything from jasmine to saffron to nutmeg, say the wine experts at Wallys in West Los Angeles. The color is dark, gorgeous and worthy of careful attention before being consumed. Flavors are smooth and rich, with even a hint of pineapple. Louis XIII is worthy of celebrating the handful of greatest moments in life.
Maison Surrenne Petite Champagne (lot 1993) - $33.99 - For those looking for an everyday cognac that can hang with the big boys, we have found your answer. This 10-year-old cognac isnt as old as the big-dollar offerings, but can deliver much of the depth of a $300 bottle. Grown in chalky soil, the grapes that make up this cognac produce a somewhat lighter fruit flavor than the big boys, but nevertheless is quite enjoyable. Production is limited to 1700 cases worldwide.
Bourbon, Rum and Absinthe
George T. Stagg Bourbon - $79 - You dont have to spend $79 to get a fine Kentucky bourbon, but if you do, expect something special. Unlike a single malt Scotch, this powerful American bourbon does better with an ice cube or two in the glass. The flavors are far more powerful and bold than anything we mentioned in our Scotch coverage above, but Stagg will bring you back to inspect and study the deep complexities of the nose of this bourbon until there isnt a drop left in the glass.
Havana Club Anejo - $40 to $60.00 - With Fidel Castro still hanging in there, this seven-year-old rum isnt available on store shelves in the United States. Assuming you have the nerve and the space in your suitcase coming back from overseas, snagging a bottle of Havana Club Anejo could be worth your efforts. The color of this rum makes more traditional rums look like lightweights. If you are trying to make an impression with some special guests, whip up a round of Havana Club mojitos by mottling a good amount of mint in a rocks glass, adding a healthy pour of simple syrup, a good shot of Havana Club seven-year and some club soda into a mixing cup and pour into a rocks glass rimmed with lime juice, then turbano sugar, and filled with ice. Even if there is a foot of snow on the ground, this drink will taste like summer.
Lucid Absinthe - $33.99 For 85 years, this European concoction beloved by the beatniks and rumored to cause hallucinations has been banned from sale in the United States. Well, if you love the flavor of anise and are looking to try to revisit the days of Jack Kerouac, prepare a sugar cube and get a few spoons, because you can now buy absinthe in the States. Made from a concoction of herbs and fennel and flavored with wormwood, absinthe has a very distinct liquorish flavor that only an enthusiast could love. Considering its 124-proof power, its no wonder people think they are seeing things with that much alcohol content, they likely are
Wally's Wine - West Los Angeles, CA 310.475.0606
The Wine House - West Los Angeles, CA 310.479.3731
The Wine Merchant - Beverly Hills, CA 310.287.7322
Union Square Wines - New York, NY 212.675.8100
67 Wine - New York, NY 212.724.6767
Cadenhead's - London, England +44 (0)20 7379 4640
Bars and Restaurants:
The Stone Rose at Warner Center - New York, New York 212.823.9770
21 - New York, New York 212.582.7200
Swann Lounge at The Four Seasons - Philadelphia, PA 215.963.9506
The Peninsula Hotel - Chicago, IL 312.337.2888
Vod Box at Nic's Martini Lounge - Beverly Hills, CA 310.555.5707
Club XIX at Pebble Beach - Carmel, CA 831.625.8519
The Tequila/Ceviche Bar - San Jose del Cabo, MX 888.Rosewood