You’ve decked the halls with tinsel and wreaths; you’ve stocked up on Hanukkah candles and polished your grandpa’s menorah. Your New Year’s bash may get a disco ball this year (because, really, good riddance, 2017)—but you’re not quite done with all the fancy preparations. Because if there’s ever an occasion to drink fancy, it’s the holiday season. December is the time to pour Champagne (or, okay, good sparkling wine) and mix a little something special into your cocoa. And, to get through all those office parties and ugly-sweater contests, you’re going to need some whiskey…and some rum…and some gin.
Before you hit the store, do a little survey of your calendar so you can stock up in advance on liquor for special gatherings of family and friends, gift bottles for your holiday hosts, and once-a-year investments for truly delicious winter sipping.
Buy a dozen bottles of sparkling wine now, and you’ll likely score a discount. That’s money you can put toward better-tasting bubbles for every toast through New Year’s—plus, with a dozen on hand, you’ll be ready for last-minute dinner invites and all those endless end-of-year parties. We’re partial to bright, lemony Vitteaut-Alberti Crémant de Bourgogne Cuvée Agnès (around $24) for cocktail-party situations, especially if there’s seafood or lighter snacks on hand. If your meal stars richer pork or poultry, go with rounder, yeasty Domaine Parigot & Richard Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Blanc de Blancs (around $23), or the wonderfully juicy, citrus- and blackberry-tinged Raventós i Blanc Rosé de Nit (around $24). Worst case: You have a bottle or two left over for Valentine’s Day.
It’s wise to be a little wary of premade cocktails—there are bad ones out there, gang—but pour a mini can of Hochstadter’s 84-proof Slow & Low Rock and Rye (around $4) into a nice tumbler with a big cube of ice, and you’ll easily fool the snobs in your midst into thinking you’ve stirred a cocktail to order. Made with rye, raw honey, dried oranges, rock candy, and Angostura bitters, it’s an old-timey concoction that’s essentially a canned Old Fashioned. The citrusy spice feels holiday-appropriate, and the pleasure-to-effort ratio is just right. Planning on serving a crowd? A full bottle of the stuff might be more up your alley.
You may not use a whole bottle of rum when you make eggnog, so you might as well buy something that will also taste good on its own. Luckily, there’s a wealth of options. This time of year, we often recommend the rich, complex El Dorado 15 Year Old ($50) or its more affordable 12-year-old sibling; luscious Zaya Gran Reserva 12 ($30); toasty Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 ($45); or sweet, chocolaty Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva ($22 for 375ml).
I’ll always have a weakness for cocoa spiked with tequila and mint schnapps (try it!), but this year, my comfort drink of choice is a big mug of hot chocolate with a tablespoon of St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram (around $28) stirred in after heating. The Jamaican-born rum-based liqueur adds a blast of spice that’s reminiscent of pepper, clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. When you’ve had your fill of spiced cocoa, you can pour a bit into your Old Fashioned, your mulled wine, your hot cider, your coffee, or pretty much any punch.
Fords Gin (around $30) makes a beautifully balanced Martini, its piney, resinous flavors backed up with a chorus of grapefruit, peppercorn, and coriander. Be careful: With a cocktail this silky-smooth, you might find yourself drinking fast. (I trust you’ll already have snacks at the ready.) While Fords won the Serious Eats Martini taste test a few years back, I also truly adore the super-fragrant St. George Terroir Gin (around $33), flavored with sage, Douglas fir, and California bay laurel. Don’t dishonor it with stale vermouth.
Unless you (or your dinner host) have bought vermouth within the last month and stored it in the fridge, you’ll need fresh vermouth to start the season right. You can’t go wrong with Dolin, especially since a half bottle is just about 10 bucks, but lately I’ve been enjoying Routin Dry Vermouth (around $23), which is especially bright and citrusy thanks to a dose of Sauvignon Blanc. It has a nice floral character, too. If you like a slightly richer Martini, try the alluring, honeyed Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale “Ambrato” (around $18), which has a round, sweet-and-savory character and a delicately bitter, herbal finish.
While you’re at it, pick up a half bottle of Carpano Antica Formula (around $16) for Negronis, Boulevardiers, or this variation made with apple brandy. Again: Remember to store any open bottles of vermouth in the fridge.
If you followed my advice and bought extra bottles of Cabernet Franc or Passe-Tout-Grains in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, your work here is done. Those wines will do just fine with your Christmas prime rib, crisp-skinned goose, or crown roast of lamb. The Domaine de la Chanteleuserie 2016 Bourgueil “Cuvée Alouettes” ($16), in particular, has an earthy, juniper-infused flavor and affordable price that make it ideal for a crowd. But even the very best gamey, savory, and delicious Chinon, from producers like Olga Raffault or Bernard Baudry, isn’t all that expensive.
Serious Eats has a whole list of the best budget bourbons and another of the best budget rye whiskeys from a few years back, both written by Michael Dietsch, the author of Whiskey and Shrubs. There are also some great values recommended in this introduction to bottled-in-bond whiskeys; my go-to these days for cocktails is the spicy Henry McKenna Single Barrel, which I’ve seen for about $27 near me.
If you haven’t quite sated your sweet tooth even after a plate or two of cookies—or if you prefer to drink your dessert—a small pour of Don Ciccio & Figli’s Concerto (around $32) will do the trick. It’s a luxuriously rich and chocolaty liqueur, flavored with wood-roasted barley, espresso, and various herbs and spices, and it wraps up on a black-licorice note that makes it a nice accompaniment for just one more gingersnap.
Some folks like to sip something a bit more aggressively bitter in the hopes that it’ll settle the stomach. If you’re bored with fernet and the amari you’ve got on hand, try Don Ciccio & Figli’s citrusy Amaro Tonico Ferro-Kina (around $40) with your fruitcake, or score a bottle of bittersweet Barolo-based Chinato, made by Cappellano, Vergano, or G. D. Vajra.
This year has some strong contenders when it comes to new whisky releases, including The Macallan’s robust, toffee- and fruit-laced Edition No. 3 ($95) and Speyburn 15 Year Old ($65), which is a lovely mouthful of graham cracker and marmalade. But the whisky I keep thinking about night after night is The Balvenie’s Peat Week ($99), a 14-year aged Scotch made back in 2002 with earthy Highland peat. (They produce peated whiskies only one week out of the year at the distillery, hence the name.) While there’s an intriguing, smoky finish to this dram, it isn’t the peat monster you might expect from the label. Instead, Peat Week is a chewy, butterscotch-y Scotch with full, round body and a vanilla-scented warmth. I love it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one more—the bottle I’ve most enjoyed having around for dinner parties. Even if you’re not normally the sort to be charmed by a beveled, decanter-type bottle, pouring Suntory’s Hibiki Japanese Harmony ($65) for your guests just feels fancy. And drinking it does, too: This Japanese blended whisky is creamy, mellow, and silky, hinting at toffee, toasted nuts, and a fragrant orange twist that’s been lit by a match. Offer a cheese plate alongside it, and let everyone linger.
While we’re talking about booze gifts that are basically both sculpture and drink, those who like their whiskey headier, sweeter, and richer have Blanton’s Bourbon Single Barrel ($60), complete with metallic horse-and-jockey stopper and beveled-bowling-ball bottle. This guy is gooey caramel and velvet in a glass, as intense as some sort of whiskey concentrate. Which might be just the dram you need when your family’s in town.
Disclosure: Tasting samples provided for review consideration. All prices noted in the text are estimates as of the time of writing and may change. Your purchase on Drizly helps support Serious Eats.