To me, nothing says "happy holidays!" quite like a bottle of good spirits. Unlike wine or beer, which are usually gone in one sitting, a fine choice of the hard stuff is a gift that can be savored over time. And the range of possibilities is inspiring. Whether your favorite drinker is a locavore sipper or world whiskey geek, a value booze buddy or someone worth a major splurge, I have 10 good bottles to choose from here.
Stateside Urbancraft Vodka, $27.99 (code 9963): The newest addition to the distilling scene around Kensington and Fishtown launched in November with a Missouri corn-based vodka that Stateside passes through its still and enriches with a secret cocktail of minerals to be "as close to water as possible," says co-founder Matthew Quigley. A soft nose, a trace of sweetness, and good mouthfeel are the result in this clean mixer. Soon to be available at a tasting room attached to the distillery (161 Cecil B. Moore Ave.) set to open in February. For now, it's already available at 12 State Stores in Philadelphia.
Le Coeur Noir, $35, Rowhouse Spirits, 2430 Frankford Ave., 267-825-7332; rowhousespirits.us: Dean Browne has become known for quirky spirits with big flavors at his tiny Kensington distillery beside the Philadelphia Brewing Co., and Le Coeur Noir is no exception. This relatively low-octane, 76-proof liqueur uses cold-brewed beans from ReAnimator Coffee as its core but elaborates with an exotic burst of cardamom, allspice, and vanilla. Would be a natural in cream-based cocktails, but Browne also likes it with whiskey and orange bitters. Available at the distillery only.
Manatawny Still Works Small Batch Whiskey Batch 6, $39.99 (code 34602): This still relatively new distillery in Pottstown next door to the Sly Fox Brewing Co. has made some impressive strides since I first tasted their initial spirits. A little barrel aging has helped, as evidenced by their richer, small-batch whiskey series. The sixth batch, released in December, blends two single malts from beer barley (pils and pale) with a four-grain mashbill (barley, wheat, oats, and rye) that adds creaminess, caramel, and spice. Still edgy and young, but very tasty.
Bourbon and other Americans:
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon, on sale for $49.99 (code 30451): One of my favorite Kentucky standards has a regular habit of producing special editions, and this is one of my favorites. Woodford's spicy, high-rye base takes well to the caramelizing effect of barrel oak, and this bottle gets barreled twice for a double dose, resulting in a deep-amber color that sits rich and toasty on the palate and slides down with an extra round and fruity savor.
Koval Single Barrel Bourbon, $54.99 (code 9459): It's still bourbon at 51 percent corn, even if it's made in Chicago by Koval (contrary to popular thought, a Kentucky provenance is not reqired). But it's the other 49 percent of the mashbill, made from the ancient gluten-free grain of millet, that makes this spirit unique. That bold and fruity organic corn note on the nose turns silky on the tongue to a texture that's almost a creamy vanilla, with just a hint of earthy, peppery smoke on the finish to remind you it's still whiskey.
Copper & Kings Craft Grape Brandy, $39.99 (code 49029): This new distiller from Louisville is tackling grape brandy - think cognac or Armagnac - but with an American swagger, blending sourced pot-stilled spirits averaging eight years old, with white "new make" brandy distilled from California grapes aging in both new oak and bourbon barrels for a couple of years. The finished product has an almost whiskeylike weight, but with more pronounced orchard fruit, caramel, and cinnamon. Needs ice cubes to fully open up.
The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, on sale for $37.99 (code 8561): From the producers of Bruichladdich Scotch, this is a gin of interest to whiskey fans, made from herbs foraged from Islay. There's wild juniper on the nose, but the palate explodes with a field bouquet of other Scottish herbs, too, full of floral, minty, and citrus notes.
Highland Park Dark Origins, on sale for $69.99 (code 9472): Spirits guru F. Paul Pacult called Highland Park's Dark Origins "the best spirit that I've tasted all year" in 2014. I can see why. This bottling (a nod to the Orkney distillery's illicit beginnings) is part of a new trend toward non-age-dated spirits. But the liquor that emerges from the unique jet-black bottle is deeply colored from sherry-cask aging, with a taste that's rich, too - walnutty, sweet, and figgy, with almost chocolatey richness that segues to pipe smoke on the finish.
Hibiki Suntory Japanese Harmony Blended Whisky, $64.99 (code 49006): It's no secret that Japan makes some of the best Scotch-style whiskeys in the world, and Suntory's Hibiki is a specialist at blends. Its Harmony label - assembled from three distilleries and five kinds of casks - is elegant and complex, with delicate Asian fruits (plum, persimmon) and orange on the nose with a sweet-spiced body that recalls sandalwood.
Don Pancho Origenes Especial Premium Panamanian Rum Reserva 18-Year, $79.99: I don't usually recommend bottles this expensive, but for a blended rum with spirits at least 18 years old, this is actually a great value. More important, this rum made in Panama by former Havana Club master distiller Don Francisco Fernandez after he left Cuba is flat-out delicious. Dark and molasses sweet, it unfurls with sweet spice, vanilla, and coffee that ends like a liquid bananas Foster. This is a post-dinner sipper. Do not waste it on a cocktail!