The Alchemist tasting panel reviews bottles to share
Now that we’re socializing again and heading into holiday season, it’s time to upgrade our gifting game. Whether you’re looking for a host gift or something to tuck under the tree, a bottle of spirits is a present with presence. And we figured no one would have a better idea of what to give than our tasting panel, so we asked them for their suggestions for gift bottles under $100, and the cocktails they’d make with them. This issue, our team comprises bartenders Sabrine Dhaliwal, J-S Dupuis, Robyn Gray, Trevor Kallies, Kaitlyn Stewart and David Wolowidnyk. Here’s what they had to say. Shop and sip accordingly.
Note: Some of these products may not be available due to shipping delays.
Belvedere Single Estates (Smogory Forest, Lake Bartezek)
40% ABV, $60 to $68 (750 mL)
“Vodka drinkers care about the subtleties in their drinks—it’s a spirit that requires one to think and search for the nuances in a spirit that doesn’t hide behind anything, no botanicals, no barrels, no additives,” says Dhaliwal, who is bar manager of the Chickadee Room and Moët Hennessy spirits ambassador. “Belvedere has been exploring the notion of terroir in rye vodka for some time now, and here we have two beautiful spirits from two very different locations in Poland.”
The first is the lush, green Smogory Forest, where long summers and mild winters ensure a long growing period for the rye to develop its deep, rich and bold character. “The palate is full and found while taking you on a journey between sweet and savoury, with hints of black pepper and spice, and a bold and savoury finish,” Dhaliwal says.
The second is from Lake Bartezek in northeastern Poland, about 100 kilometres from Gdansk, where long, cold winters heavily influenced by the Baltic Sea, along with heavy post-glacial clay soils, cause unique stresses for the rye. “This vodka is fresh and delicate,” she says, “with a rich texture and a palate of fresh spearmint, fresh hay and touch of biscuit.”
Suggested cocktail: “Enjoy both vodkas on their own and then start to experiment with them,” Dhaliwal says. “I suggest using the Smogory Forest for bolder spirit-forward cocktails while the Lake Bartezek is great in longer refreshing drinks. Try them both—I will admit they both make excellent Martinis.”
Alberta Premium 20 Year Old Limited Edition Canadian Rye Whisky
42% ABV, $80 (750 mL)
“One of the best bottles to give this year, this crazy year we’ve all been through, to me, is something delicious, something decadent and, most importantly, something local,” says Dupuis, the beverage director of Wentworth Hospitality Group. “I received myself, from myself, a bottle of Alberta Premium 20 Year and I was over the moon. Alberta Premium uses only prairie rye, no corn, no barley. It is the oldest distillery making a 100-per-cent rye grain whisky, and because of that, they have an extensive library of older barrels.
“Alberta Premium is a soft whisky. Using older barrels for their finishing, it really brings out the softness of the spirit. Now imagine that sitting for 20 years in a barrel; holy moly, is it ever delicious. Beautiful notes of cinnamon, maple and baking spices with a soft and long finish that really rounds out this delicious whisky.”
He adds: “It is the perfect bottle to give to someone that does not like whisky. The chances that they will let you drink most of the bottle will be greater.”
Suggested cocktail: “When it comes to a 100 per cent rye whisky, spice has to be the name of the game, which makes it fun in cocktails, although one has to be careful—at that age, it becomes much more delicate,” says Dupuis. “Although it deserves to stand alone and be enjoyed neat, a strong spirit-forward cocktail like a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned will work. We just need to adjust the recipe by adding less vermouth, or sugar, or bitter to really let the whisky shine.”
Baker’s Bourbon 7 Year Single Barrel
53.5% ABV, $80 (750 mL)
“Baker’s 7 Year is the namesake bourbon of Baker Beam, grand-nephew of Jim Beam and former distiller at the Jim Beam Distillery,” says Gray, who is the general manager at Queens Cross Pub in North Vancouver. “This unique bourbon is from a single barrel, giving it nuance and complexity only found in that one barrel. I love this bourbon as a gift because you can track its journey from start to finish on their website, with the bottle ID number on the neck, and learn about what distinctive characteristics make it unique. Fun stuff!”
Suggested cocktail: The Brown Derby (see recipe).
Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky
43% ABV, $58 (750 mL)
“Surprisingly, not enough people in my gifting circle drink simple whisky highballs,” notes Kallies, the bar and beverage director at Donnelly Group and president of the CPBA. “One of my favourite bottles to gift is Suntory Toki Japanese whisky. The packaging is fantastic. The bottle has clean, sharp, impressive corners which stand out on a back bar or shelf at home. The label draws in the eyes and the colour of the liquid is intriguing with that brassy, golden hue. The whisky itself stands up in so many ways: neat, over a king-sized ice cube, mixed into a whisky cocktail, sour, Old Fashioned or other.”
Suggested cocktail: “My favourite way to enjoy it is long, in a tall glass with an aggressively carbonated soda. Get those bubbles as angry as possible!” Kallies says, adding that he will typically add a bottle or two of Topo Chico, a Mexican sparkling mineral water, to his gift. “A thick piece of lemon zest over top and dropped into the glass and you’re done. Literally drink this any time.”
The Woods Spirits Amaro
28% ABV, $40 (750 mL)
“When gifting someone a tasty spirit, I like to look outside the usual suspects and introduce them to maybe a category they’ve never tried,” says Stewart, a cocktail consultant, educator and global winner of Diageo World Class 2017. “So I like to reach for amaro. Specifically, The Woods Amaro. It’s excellent sipped on its own as a digestif and works wonderfully as a substitute for Campari in cocktails. On the nose, there is a strong aroma of blood orange, pepper and vanilla. On the palate, notes of wood, dried herbs and a touch of bitterness. The fact that it is a local product, too, is just icing on the cake!”
Suggested cocktail: The Amaro Spritz (see recipe).
Stiggins’ Fancy Plantation Pineapple Rum
40% ABV, $48 (750 mL)
“I’m not usually one to sing praises for ‘flavoured’ spirits, but this pineapple rum is something truly special and will surprise the recipient of such a gift with a newfound appreciation for flavoured spirits done the way they should be,” says Wolowidnyk, bartender at Aquafarina and distiller at Resurrection Spirits. “It’s a blend of rum from three origins. The young rums are infused with pineapple rind and re-distilled. The dark rums are infused with the fruit for three months and then blended with the younger rums to be further matured in oak for an additional three months.”
Suggested cocktail: Two drinks Wolowidnyk suggests you try immediately are a Pineapple Daiquiri (see recipe) or an Old Fashioned using the pineapple rum in place of the whisky.