Ah, Christmas. It comes but once a year, but the drinking it inspires is, well, inspiring. So too the spending on said drink, on bottles that otherwise might not justify such expenditure. But why not? There's hardly a better occasion than the holidays to drink something good or give something good to drink -- and with any luck you'll be offered a taste of your own generosity.
December is like a herald for the brown liquors, wintry spirits that warm the heart and bones as thoroughly as a roaring hearth. I'll have more to say on cognacs and armagnacs soon, but this year for me has been the year of the scotch, and if I were making a list, scotch would be at the top of it.
The best dram I had all year was probably not the $100-a-sip Balvenie 50-Year that I was lucky enough to try a few weeks ago. Call me crazy, but I preferred the brand's 17-Year-Old Doublewood at a fraction of the price (though still not cheap, at $125). Wildly earthy, feral and complex, kissed by oak but not dominated by it, this profound whiskey left me with much to ponder, as did the Glenrothes 1988 (about the same age, and about $140), a pretty, lifted, pear-scented dram whose age has burnished it into a fine sheen.
For fewer than half the shillings you could grab one of the Glenmorangie Single Malts, a Highland brand that ages its whiskies in old used sherry and port casks for subtle shifts of flavor. For peatier iterations, consider the Ardbeg 10-Year Islay (all about $45).
If you're looking for an alternative, perhaps a good bottle of sipping tequila or mezcal would do, a reposado or añejo with their complex, sophisticated flavors, like an off-leash salted caramel, or the haunting, sensuous smoke of a good mezcal.
For mezcal, look for Del Maguey Vida di San Luis del Rio and Sombra Agave de Mezcal, both about $40. For tequila, look for El Tesoro Anejo, Chinaco Reposado or Cabo Wabo Reposado, $40-$60.
Since I moved to California, one of the markers of the holiday for me has always been the appearance in stores of large format bottles of Anchor Brewing Company's Christmas Ale, an annual event from the storied San Francisco brewery, which changes its recipe annually and issues its draught in 50-ounce magnums (about $20). It's a stunner this year, warm and wintry, with chocolate and gingerbread accents and a richness that I don't remember from previous years.
If there are stockings to stuff, I would recommend some of the better accoutrements of a well-stocked bar, like vials of bitters from Angostura, Fee Brothers and Miracle Mile, 750s of vermouth from Dubonnet, and Punt e Mes or the exquisite Antica Formula from Carpano, not to mention Aperol, Campari, Grenadine, Falernum and Orgeat, obscure but useful cocktail ingredients used in everything from Manhattans to mai tais, from negronis to zombies.
Finally, consider the digestive, a punch-in-the-gut class of bitter herbal concoctions designed to help with all that has been consumed before, which settles the stomach as it levels an eccentric wallop of flavor, herbal and otherwise, upon the tongue.
The mother of all of these is Fernet Branca, now available in tiny but powerful 50ml bottles.
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I recently came across a nifty 20ml bottle of Kuemmerling, a German halb-bitter, which still seemed plenty bitter to me, though it pales in comparison to the classic Underberg, also in 20ml bottles, which you can purchase as a three-pack and thus stuff three times as many stockings as you see fit, or just hand out after the Christmas goose has been devoured in order to palliate the groans around the table.
Check out K&L Wine Merchants, Wally's Wine & Spirits, The Wine House, and Woodland Hills Wine Company for excellent selections of scotch and tequila. Most Whole Foods Markets carry Anchor Steam's Christmas Ale, as does BevMo. For cocktail enhancers, one of the best sources in L.A. is Bar Keeper, which recently acquired a liquor license, so watch out! As for Underberg and Kuemmerling, I usually stock up at German markets like Alpine Village store in Torrance, or Continental Gourmet Sausage in Glendale.
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